In the late 1990s, the U.S. government came up with a controversial scheme to control the waters south off the Florida coast by signing agreements with various Caribbean governments to allow American coastguard officers to board a vessel in the Atlantic to intercept shipments of drugs, arms and other illicit products with virtual impunity.
From its inception, some governments had opposed the Shiprider Agreement contending that it had given American officers way too much power to intercept and board vessels, arrest crews and indict them on charges related to international smuggling.
In recent years, not much had been heard of activities related to the Shiprider Agreement until a visit last year to the South Caribbean by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he renewed agreements with Guyana and generally moved to give new life to this highly disputed concept.
Now the bad side effect of this agreement has raised its ugly head after a Jamaican fishing boat crew of four was detained late last year after their vessel was boarded by American sailors on the presumption that they were on a cocaine smuggling errand.
The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper reported that their boat was destroyed after the interception and the men left to rot in an American jail from October last year up to the end of December, traumatized and angry and not compensated for their ordeal whatsoever, not a blind cent.
The incident has angered Jamaicans and led to a spirited debate in the Senate last week with the opposition and even government officials calling for both a review and renegotiation of the agreement to make it less lopsided.
As an indication of how absurd the incident involving the four crewmen was, a Florida judge ruled that the men were carrying nothing more than gasoline in onboard containers. Yet they were dumped in a jail, their vessel destroyed and kept for an additional two weeks after his ruling. A similar incident had occurred in 2017 when five Jamaicans were detained in waters off Haiti.
The latest incident has now led to a determination by the Jamaican government that the agreement should be amended for the third time to give islanders greater comfort with its rules.
Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith says a review will take place relating to “searches and boarding of intercepted vessels” as well as “relating to the status of nationals from the time of grant of the waiver up to the outcome of any legal or judicial action pursued against them. Apologies were extended to the Jamaican side by the United States regarding the handling of the matter,” she told a tense sitting of the senate.
The opposition People’s National Party’s (PNP) Lambert Brown accused authorities of ineptitude noting that “it is your government who has sold the people out.” Former security minister Peter Bunting argued that officials dropped the ball in allowing the men to be detained for an additional two weeks even after the judge had ruled.
“So I am concerned. This has really not so much to do with the U.S. side but on the Jamaican side, given that the consulate had been alerted and they should have been monitoring the progress of this case, that weeks should pass and almost by accident our ministry of foreign affairs learns of this,” Bunting said.
Some Caribbean governments had in part welcomed the agreement saying that they lacked the resources to properly monitor activities on the high seas but the story of the Jamaican crewmen will certainly force regional authorities to review the tenets of the deal to avoid American overreach.