Corruption at Jamaica’s Ports

A year ago, while at Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport waiting to be cleared by customs, an individual, who I assumed was either a customs officer or had sufficient access, walked among the recently arrived passengers waiting to be cleared, offering to clear customs without the wait – for a price. He did this in the open without any apparent fear of being caught or reported by his peers.

Montego Bay port rush
Waiting in the sun to enter the port in Montego Bay.

I cannot ascertain whether this individual had any willing takers, but the boldness of his actions indicates to me that he has done this before. He was still at the airport working a year later in December 2007, though he did not in my presence make the same offers.

This past Christmas, in the spirit of the season and following the advice of my wife, we decided to ship two containers from Maryland, to the island to be available for pick up on our arrival with gifts for our relatives – especially after hearing stories of shortages and high prices resulting from the recently devastating weather.

On the day scheduled to pick up the shipment we left our rural area and drove to Montego Bay where a visit to the shipping agent and tax office took an estimated two hours to pay charges and receive a Taxpayer Registration Number (TRN). All this done by about 9 am, I assured the hired driver we would be out of the wharf by 10 am. He being more familiar with the runnings at the wharf was not as convinced. He cautioned me on my optimism, telling me that a recent trip took the whole day.

On arriving at the site located at the port , I expected to see an office I would easily access to present the shipping papers and be attended to within a reasonable period of time. I was mistaken. People were standing at a fence waiting to receive a number – so I asked in my ignorance where the numbers located were. Sadly, it was not to be that simple. Numbers were assigned only after the staff behind the fence took the papers, handed them back a few hours later and telling the customers to wait to hear their names called.

This all took about eight frustrating hours – and was just to enter the fenced area. It would take another four or so hours to receive the barrels – shortened only by making a payment to one of the attendants who then went in search of the barrels and walked us through the process.

During the 12 hour ordeal I witnessed senior citizens suffering the same exhaustion and frustration – one of whom fell and had to be attended to by emergency medical responders. The elderly woman was made to walk into the ambulance – no gurney.

The apparent general consensus among the crowd was that the system was established and nurtured in such a way as to encourage illegal payments in order to receive any government services. While some in the crowd openly admitted to having to pay just to receive a number for entering the facility, others like me initially resisted paying the bribe until having encountered the staff inside and seeing the futility of the wait. Like many others, I had lost hope and wanted an end to the awful experience.

I question the resolve of the government, past and present, to clean up the public sector in Jamaica to provide services to the citizens without having to pay bribes. It also highlights the plight of preventing illegal contrabands such as guns from entering the country. The conclusion is that one can easily make payments to have such items released through customs without having a proper inspection – either through bypassing the inspectors or accidentally due to the ad hoc and confusing process.

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