AIRPORTS MORE SECURE, SAYS UK EXPERT - BUT CONSTANT BATTLE TO KEEP DRUGS OUT
A British Customs security expert says that security at Jamaica's two international airports - Manley in Kingston and Sangster in Montego Bay - are now up to international standards, lessening the ability of drug smugglers to move contraband through them.
Moreover, according to John Whyte, the head of UK Customs' London and National Detection Region, there is a clear will by the Jamaican authorities to get things right.
Whyte was in Jamaica last week for a series of meetings with local officials on deepening anti-narcotics cooperation between Jamaica and Britain, especially under a project called Operation Airbridge.
"I was at the (Manley) Airport (last Tuesday) and there is a level of security that now meets international standards," Whyte said in an interview.
On his previous visit to Jamaica, he had observed a range of obvious lapses in airport security - like a door leading to sensitive areas through which airport employees go in and out without passing through stringent security checks each time. This, and more, have been corrected.
"Just by doing that fairly simple thing you reduce opportunity," Whyte said. "The airport authorities have listened very closely to what we have said."
At least two UK Customs officers have been in the island for the last six months, working alongside Jamaican counterparts in the anti-drug effort.
Whyte on last week's visit had talks with the Permanent Secretary in the National Security Ministry Gilbert Scott, the Jamaica Constabulary Force's head of narcotics ACP Errol Strong, and airport officials, about the Jamaica/UK anti-narcotics effort and airport security.
"I think there is a real will to get this right," Whyte said. "It is apparent in the conversations we had. It's been apparent from the ongoing dialogue. with the Jamaican authorities."
With new methods emerging regularly to smuggle drugs out of Jamaica, Whyte said airport workers were among those who had to be closely monitored. He conceded, however, that the problem of airport employee corruption existed not only in Jamaica, and the UK too has had to formulate programmes to flush out the crooks.
"We have an ongoing programme where we constantly test the attendance of our officers," Whyte said. "We move officers around so that they are not doing the same job all the time. We have managers who have assurance programmes and they are actually checking on those officers.
If there is anyone who we have any suspicion about, we will investigate that."
A Customs officer at Gatwick Airport, Whyte said, was recently convicted on corruption charges.
An airport crime team, he said, also monitors other line employees such as baggage handlers who may find ingenious ways to get contraband on, and off, aeroplanes.
"One of the major types of smuggling from not just Jamaica, but other countries, is rip-on," Whyte said. "That's when drugs are put aboard the aircraft after a passenger is checked in. So he can check the bag in, it's empty or has very little in it."
"And similarly at the other end in the UK, you will have collusion between an airport worker who takes it off before it gets there," Whyte said.
This can be done either with or without the passengers' knowledge, and is one of the methods of drug smuggling that UK Customs has been working closely with their Jamaican counterparts to stem.
"We've been working to give advice on how we can minimise the opportunity for those drugs to be put onboard the aircraft," said Whyte.