Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUYANA-ECONOMY: Businessmen to be Charged in Gold Scam

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Oct 28 1996 (IPS) - When police and state prosecutors lay charges for illegal gold export against several of the city’s top businessmen later this week, government officials will probably breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Finally some say, they will be vindicated for their handling of a multi-million racket that sent thousands of ounces of gold to the United States through the back door in the last five years.

The Cheddi Jagan administration’s failure to release vital information, including the names of the major suspects and charges that it was even trying to cover up for supporters who contribute millions of dollars to the ruling People’s Progressive Party at times forced officials to go on the defensive.

But the situation is changing in favour of the administration, following reports from the office of Ian Chang, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) that police will charge eight of the city’s top businessmen in a few days for their part in an illegal gold export scheme that dates back at least to 1991.

In the last week police investigators have asked the group to furnish specimen signatures and other details to compare with customs declaration and other evidence in official custody.

The signatures of the suspects are said to be found on everything from outgoing immigration forms to U.S. customs declaration cards and even airway bills.

“We will move to charge them possibly in a week,” says Chang, “We have asked for signatures and these will be sent for police analysis. After that, I am good to go.”

News of the scam, by which businessmen exported an average of 100,000 ounces of gold to the U.S. annually in recent years, broke by pure accident about 15 months ago. Gold sells at 380 dollars per ounce. Miami and New York are the major receiving centres.

Local finance ministry officials, who travelled to Miami to investigate under-invoicing by used car dealers, stumbled on the information with the nudging of U.S. customs officials.

Fearing that increasing annual export numbers could be linked to an international money laundering scheme, the Americans bared all records for the visiting Guyanese.

They offered to help in whatever way they could and pushed the Guyanese to carry out the necessary investigations even though there is no formal agreement between the two. What has resulted, however, is an informal system of information exchange that could spell trouble for future racketeers.

Jagan also asked the Drug Enforcement Administration to investigate and to set up an office here.

But police have stressed that the suspects committed no breach of United States law by declaring their cargo, but failed to declare it at the Guyana end.

Records of one exporter indicated that he had earned at least nine million dollars from the scam in a three-month period while another is said to have shipped 800 ounces in one year.

Kellawan Lall, a Political advisor to Jagan, and the lead government investigator, says initially there were indications of a drug link as bank accounts had been tied to Chile and Bolivia.

He was supported by Susan Rowley, the U.S. customs representative in Caracas, Venezuela, who also said there was a “strong smell” of laundering in the scam. She assisted in acquiring crucial data officials needed, while regional airlines, including Trinidad’s BWIA International and Guyana Airways are also furnishing whatever records they had at the request of investigators.

The 100,000 ounces officials estimate, is equivalent to about a quarter of the declared national production. Only the state-owned Guyana Gold Board and the Canadian-run Omai Gold Mines Ltd. are allowed to export gold legally, though government says it is ready to grant a dozen people purchase licences to ease the monopoly.

Released on station bail of 360 dollars (Guyanese 50,000 dollars) are Butch Parmanand, a popular restaurateur, variety store owners Shell Mohamed and Bernard Shaw and Shipper Ramjeet Ramphal. Others are being questioned.

Police say several others are also in the business, but their cases will be weaker if taken to court, since couriers are involved and transit rather than non-stop flights were used, making it difficult to prove where the gold was obtained.

If found guilty of exporting illegally and breaching customs regulations, the defendants could be asked to pay fines of three times the assessed value of their exports and serve up to a year in prison.

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