WASHINGTON — A North Korea-flagged vessel believed to be carrying a cargo of sugar from Cuba was stopped by Panamanian authorities almost a week ago after they got a tip that illicit narcotics were on board.
After searching only 10 percent of the vessel, a Panamanian official tells WTOP they discovered illegal weapons hidden in containers.
Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told WTOP in an exclusive interview, “We got information through our intelligence service early last week and on Wednesday, everything started.”
He said the crew of 35 North Koreans “was very hostile and not cooperative at all,” and after more than a day of resisting, the vessel on Friday had to be moved with tug boats to the harbor. Mulino says the crew was taken into custody by Panamanian special forces and late Saturday night they began to search the vessel.
Mulino says they began to unload the vessel “until yesterday around 6 o’clock in the afternoon, when we found the missiles.” He would not characterize the type of weapons found.
Steve Atkiss, a partner in the Command Consulting Group, which advises the Panamanian government on security matters, says beneath the cargo were “what appears to be some sort of missile system or components of a missile system. The exact origin of where it came from and how it got to Cuba in the first place is still unknown.”
Atkiss says attempts to search the vessel turned confrontational as, “the captain attempted on several occasions to commit suicide. The crew also went through extensive efforts, after determining they were under suspicion to disable the cranes on the ship.”
Mulino says due to the size and nature of the cargo, the search of the vessel could take several days.
He says the Panamanians were warned that a suspicious cargo was headed their way, but he declined to say who issued the warning or how.
Atkiss says, “In this particular case, the Panamanian authorities regularly interact with other government including our own to gather as much intelligence as possible to lead them to target specific ships they think would be of particular interest.”
The Panamanian government has asked for help from the international community to help them identify the kind of weapons found on the vessel. The ship, reportedly built in the 1970s, is approximately 500-feet-long and 65-feet-wide and is capable of carrying more than 13,000 tons of cargo.