Venezuelans Question Crew of Detained U.S. Ship
Crew is accused of arms trafficking
Mariano Castillo and Arthur Brice CNN
September 07, 2012(CNN) -- The captain of a U.S.-flagged ship and its crew will give depositions to Venezuelan investigators Friday stemming from an arms trafficking accusation.
Venezuelan authorities have detained the captain of the shipping vessel, Ocean Atlas, since Wednesday, crew members said.
The captain and 13 crew members will give statements to investigators, according to a manager of the ship's customs brokers. The manager asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The crew is detained on the ship, and authorities are holding the captain elsewhere.
The manager identified the captain as Jeffrey Michael Raider, 45, of Texas.
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela said Raider and his crew -- the official put the number at 15 -- had been held in Maracaibo, Venezuela.
A crew member on the ship who asked to remain anonymous because of security concerns said the ship had been detained for nine days. On Wednesday, soldiers boarded the ship, herded the crew into the mess and met with Raider before taking him away.
The crew member said in an e-mail Thursday evening that arrest warrants had been issued for the entire crew.
The situation appeared tense, but the manager said that the government's actions have not been aggressive and that both sides are cooperating with each other and being respectful.
"It's a legal process, but no one's rights have been violated," the manager said.
The crew member, in an e-mail to CNN on Friday, said that while the crew members were detained and upset, they have not been mistreated.
"To be clear, at no point have we been threatened with physical injury, harm or death or had a gun pointed directly at our person. At all times the guns were pointed at the ground," the crew member said.
The customs brokerage manager said he had never seen a situation where a ship was detained and searched in such a way, "but the authorities of this country must have their motives" for doing so, he said.
The crew member gave a detailed account of what has happened to the ship since it docked in Maracaibo on August 29.
A few hours after the ship arrived, it was boarded by officials from Interpol, Venezuelan police officers and narcotics investigators who said they had received a tip that the vessel was smuggling drugs, the crew member said.
Two separate agencies searched the ship, including the crew members' rooms, with dogs.
Then the Venezuelan authorities had the crew unload all of the ship's cargo so they could search it, and again didn't find any contraband, the crew member said.
At a previous Venezuelan port, authorities sent divers down twice to inspect the ship's hull.
But the officials did find weapons the ship's security team keeps in a locker for when the vessel goes through areas where piracy is a threat, like the Gulf of Aden.
The captain had declared the weapons upon arrival in Maracaibo and received clearance, according to the crew member, but the Venezuelan authorities said the ship didn't have permission to have them and confiscated them.
The guns are locked in a bonded area, and they are only for the use of the security company that owns them, the crew member said.
On Saturday, the crew was told the ship was under investigation for arms trafficking, he said, and Wednesday morning, the captain said the ship had been officially charged.
On Wednesday night, after the captain made a court appearance during the day, 20 to 30 armed soldiers demanded to be let on board, the crew member said.
The captain hasn't returned to the ship since, the crew member said, but he has talked on the phone to the chief mate.
The sister of another crew member, who has been in regular contact with her brother and asked not to be identified for security reasons, said crew members held aboard the ship have heard that the captain has been charged with arms trafficking. The captain was detained after he refused to let authorities arrest the crew, she said.
Venezuelan officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The customs manager said he expects that the process will play itself out and that the captain will be able to show he had declared the weapons.
"We are in contact with the government of Venezuela on the matter, and are working to provide all appropriate consular assistance at the earliest opportunity," said a U.S. State Department official who asked to remain anonymous.
CNN's Catherine Shoichet, Elise Labott, and Marilia Brocchetto, and journalist Osmary Hernandez contributed to this report.