One of the three suitcases that contained marijuana. (File photo)
PHILIPSBURG--Two baggage handlers at Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) were sentenced in the Court of First Instance on Wednesday for the attempted smuggling of 39 kilogrammes of marijuana from Canada into St. Maarten.
Both men were sentenced to 36 months, six of which were suspended, on three years’ probation, which was according to the prosecutor’s demand.
The Criminal Information Service (CID) was tipped off that two airport employees would be involved in a drug-smuggling operation at PJIA on May 15, 2022.
That day, the Alpha Team of police detectives seized three suitcases containing some 39.335 grams of marijuana. The contraband was brought into the airport in checked baggage on board WestJet airlines flight WS2652 from Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Four people were arrested, three of them for their involvement in the drug-trafficking operation. Two of these men – Denzil Anthony Asin Browne (43) and Ivan Gregory Rodriguez (54) – were brought before a judge on Wednesday. They were convicted, even though both of them denied the charges.
A fourth man R.M.R. was also arrested on May 15, after attempting to hinder the investigation by attacking a police officer. He was released after questioning.
On video images taken in the airport’s baggage hall, Browne and Rodriguez were seen taking three suitcases off the belt and putting them aside. Customs officials were very surprised to see that the three trolley cases were filled with 75 packages of different types of marijuana.
The two men denied that they were involved in a drug-trafficking operation and claimed that they had put the three suitcases aside to dispatch them to cruise ship Harmony of the Seas as part of VIP services for air passengers.
However, the handwritten claim tags that Rodriguez was seen attaching to the suitcases did not carry the names of passengers on board the WestJet flight, but of those of Delta Airlines flights of May 8 and May 10.
Also, Harmony of the Seas was not in port in St. Maarten on May 15, but three days earlier, on May 12.
Rodriguez, who worked for Arrindell Aviation, and Browne, who was employed by Anguilla Air Service, could not explain these differences to the judge. Both men are currently suspended by their employers, pending the outcome of this case.
The prosecutor considered it proven that Browne and Rodriguez were not busy with carrying out VIP services on the day of their arrests, but with the import of drugs from Canada.
“The video images speak volumes,” the prosecutor said. “They are used to working together. It was probably not the first time. It was a coordinated action.”
Attorney Marlon Hart insisted that Browne had provided VIP service for suitcases from the WestJet flight, for which he had requested the assistance of his colleague Rodriguez.
“Those suitcases had to go to the harbour,” the lawyer said, who denied that the suspects used veiled language during their telephone conversations.
“My client is no drug dealer. He may have been abused. It was never his intention to come into contact with this,” Hart said in pleading for Browne’s acquittal.
Lawyer Geert Hatzmann pleaded not guilty for Rodriguez. “Is the evidence enough to firmly believe that something was wrong?” he wondered.
The judge had little doubt. “The video images and WhatsApp conversations show that the suspects knew they were doing something illegal,” the judge said. “Both have very cleverly abused their functions at the airport, and not for the first time.”