Thirty-nine arrests have been made by Her Majesty’s Customs service in the Cayman Islands since January 2014, mostly at Owen Roberts International Airport, for offenses such as carrying illegal drugs or firearms into the country.
Of those arrests, 31 were made last year and eight were made in the first three months of 2015, according to customs officials.
The increase, when compared to customs arrests in 2013 – just six for the entire year – is significant and is partly due to changes in enforcement strategy, according to Deputy Customs Collector Marlon Bodden.
However, Mr. Bodden said the department is seeing many more instances of tourists bringing in firearms and drugs, with the former often being detected only when the visitors leave the islands.
Mr. Bodden said between April 17, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2014, seven arrests were made by customs for firearms and ammunition possession. In the first three months of this year, there were two arrests for firearms and ammunition. Most of the arrests occurred at the airport, but at least two came about during customs searches of shipping containers.
Several of the cases were detected when the travelers had completed their vacations and were going through the airport’s metal detector, which picked up the firearm or ammunition in their travel bags. Mr. Bodden said these individuals had apparently made it through U.S. airport security undetected and arrived in Cayman, where they do not face any security screens upon entry.
“[The tourist traveling with a firearm or ammunition] might not necessarily be an immediate threat,” Mr. Bodden said. “Of course, being in possession is something we don’t take lightly. Number one, it can fall into the wrong hands.
“[They could] just be reckless about it, leave [their bag with the weapon] in the hotel room, someone cleans the room sees it and says ‘wow, this is a good opportunity for me to take a couple rounds of ammunition and no one would know.’”
Mr. Bodden said all instances in which firearms have been recovered from foreign travelers are reported to the appropriate security agencies in those jurisdictions.
“We specifically request that they provide alerts because we don’t want this reoccurring,” Mr. Bodden said. “We are not as liberal as other countries are when it comes to dealing with firearms.”
Firearm ownership is allowed for private citizens in the Cayman Islands, but only with the specific permission of the commissioner of police. In the U.S., any citizen or lawful resident with a clean criminal record can own a weapon. Most of those caught with firearms or ammunition in their travel bags at the airport are legal gun owners in the U.S., Mr. Bodden said.
Another area where “liberal” laws could lead to a greater number of arrests in Cayman is in drug possession. Jamaican law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana took effect last week. Mr. Bodden said he expects this will be an issue, particularly for cruise ship visitors traveling between Jamaica and Cayman.
“You will find that people are becoming a bit more lax,” Mr. Bodden said. “It could easily happen, we could see far more individuals being arrested for ganja. ‘Hey, I went out last night because I know I’m going to travel on vacation tomorrow and I may have a portion of drugs in my pants pocket’ and not realize they put the pants on and take the flight. You come here and you’re intercepted because the [drug sniffer] dog alerts [to you].”
The majority of the customs service arrests between January 2014 and March 2015 were for illegal drugs, Mr. Bodden said. Many of the cases involved deliberate concealment – particularly of cocaine. In one series of arrests from April 2014, five people were arrested in airport drug seizures, mostly for cocaine possession, following a customs crackdown over the long holiday weekend. In the five years prior to those arrests, there had been just 12 drugs seizures at Owen Roberts.
Mr. Bodden, a former police superintendent, said at the time that the customs department appeared to be “weak” in its intervention efforts.