The Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) was established in 2014 on the recommendation of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF). It was intended to be a police unit operating under the authority of the Commissioner of Police but with a close relationship with the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) established under the Anti- Money laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) Act, Chapter 10:11 of the Laws of Guyana. The Terms of Reference were approved by the Cabinet. These were not disclosed but “the Unit is expected to be dedicated to investigating suspected financial transactions suggestive of money laundering and financing of terrorism,” according to Dr. Roger Luncheon, the then Head of the Presidential Secretariat, who revealed all of the above in a press conference on September 7, 2014 and in previous press conferences.
This was certainly what was understood by then Leader of the Opposition, Mr. David Granger, who at a press conference on October 11, 2014, acknowledged that SOCU was being assigned “as the investigative arm of the FIU.” Mr. Carl Greenidge, then Shadow Minister of Finance, was even more expansive. He said: “The FIU, after receiving that report (from its reporting institutions), will now send it off to the SOCU which will operate as its investigative arm.” From what Mr. Greenidge said at the time, he clearly envisaged SOCU as a desk bound agency, with accounting and financial expertise, checking transactions, following paper trails and then instituting charges where offences are found to have been committed.
Comments from both Government and Opposition, therefore, suggested that there was broad consensus that SOCU would be an investigative unit dedicated to unearthing money laundering and the financing of terrorism that may have occurred in our banking system. One substantial omission, however, was that the Terms of Reference and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of SOCU were not published. The public therefore had no way of knowing SOCU’s jurisdictional and procedural limitations. These types of matters are normally treated with secrecy in Guyana so that the citizen is afforded no opportunity to defend his/her rights where a State organisation violates its charter and in doing so harms the citizen.
The first indication that SOCU was departing from what the public was told would be its mandate, occurred on November 18, 2014. It was announced by Mr. Paul Geer, Head of the FIU, at an AML/CFT Asset Recovery Training Programme, that SOCU had made its first ‘bust,’ namely, the seizure of cash from a Bulgarian national who was attempting to smuggle it from the Cheddi Jagan International Airport. Mr. Sydney James, the Head of SOCU, gave further details.
This was SOCU’s first known operational role. No question was raised about its departure from its announced function as the investigative arm of the FIU. It is not known if was this event, or an internal Government decision of which the public is unaware, that prompted Mr. Anil Nandlall, former Attorney General, to assert that SOCU’s role included an operational element, but that it was confined to ports of entry and departure. There was certainly no hint that SOCU’s role would go beyond that announced by the PPP/C Government and agreed by the Opposition, which envisioned no operational activity at ports or elsewhere.
But SOCU’s mandate was clearly vastly expanded under the new APNU+AFC Government with no public announcement. This secretive new role came into sharp focus in a spectacularly tragic manner. The horrific accident, which claimed three lives at the Christmas holidays, arose from a stakeout by SOCU, using military personnel, which degenerated into a car chase, to prevent the removal of documents from a house wrongly thought to be Mr. Winston Brassington’s home. This event attracted widespread public criticism and questioning of the role of SOCU. Many felt that it was being used by the Government, with the collusion of the military, as an enforcer and that all restraint and oversight had been removed. No answers were given. Much the same criticisms are now being made as a result of the raids carried out on homes and the seizure of money and gold. It is argued that these raids cannot be based on reports made by financial institutions as was originally conceived, and that SOCU is out of control. The question is, to whom does SOCU report? The Commissioner of Police? He has been silent!
Money laundering and money hoarding are two different things. The first is a criminal offence. The second is a more complex issue. A large number of small business people, many widely dispersed, make and receive payments in cash or sometimes in gold, which is also hoarded. It would not be surprising if they all now feel fearful and vulnerable as a result of SOCU’s widely publicized raids and if business activity is adversely affected.
The original role conceived for SOCU appears to have been totally abandoned. No one in the pending 858 pending cases since 2014 appears to have been charged through the instrumentality of the FIU and SOCU. But SOCU has been given support and resources to develop into a bust and raid unit, which appears now to be its main focus. The public needs to be told something.