Venezuelan authorities this morning released the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Ocean Atlas from two weeks of detention on suspicion of arms trafficking.
This comes as a relief to Intermarine, the owner of the ship, as well as for the 15-man all-American crew who had been stuck in limbo since August 29 when Venezuelan customs officials discovered a handful of weapons on board.
“We are pleased to confirm that charges have been dropped against the vessel and crew and the master has been returned to the vessel. We continue to work cooperatively with the Venezuelan authorities to bring this matter to a successful conclusion,” says Will Terrill, v.p. at Intermarine, in a statement.
The weapons were not accompanied by the proper documentation and thus were technically illegal for the ship to be carrying in Venezuelan waters.
There’s no telling yet what a subsequent search of the Ocean Atlas’ cargo revealed, but the captain, Jeff Raider, was removed from the ship for questioning. The rest of the crew was also interrogated.
Undocumented weapons may be a reasonable justification for holding the ship for two weeks, but that was far from the only dynamic here.
Very few ships worldwide sail under U.S. flag and with an all-American crew. Laws and regulations simply make it less profitable to do so. Combine that with the fact that the Ocean Atlas is a ship of rare capabilities, with cranes that can lift 400 tons, and the ship becomes a rare prize for Chavez indeed.
It’s commonplace for third-world customs officials to help themselves to cases of cigarettes and Coca-Cola found on board ships they inspect. And Russ Macomber, the Ocean Atlas crew member who posted on Facebook about the current ordeal, says Venezuelan authorities even ate their ice cream.
Intermarine likely had to pay much more than that to free the Ocean Atlas from Chavez. But they have to be careful in any payments made. “If it’s a legally imposed fine then that’s acceptible,” says Linsker. But if they make any other kind of under-the-table payment to secure its release that would be a clear violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act.