According to an Aitutaki resident who asked not to be named, “these suspected drug runners hang outside the cop shop all day and get placed in the cop shop at night”.
A recent police statement said the crew “are continuing to be managed under the immigration requirements that govern their movements” and yesterday CINews was told that, “both customs and immigration are directly engaged in looking into different aspects of the crew’s conditions, and the application of appropriate measures in respect to the vessel’s future”.
Since late February a “multi-agency effort” involving members of the Cook Islands police, customs and immigration, marine resources and biosecurity departments has been underway to investigate the vessel, although a full official explanation of what the Nino Maravilla is being investigated for has not yet been made available.
Most recently, on March 21, two members of the eight-man crew – the vessel’s captain and its chief engineer, were convicted and fined $1000 each for failing to declare previous convictions, said to be for serious drug trafficking offences.
The week before that, Colombian national Luis Felipe Garcia Atehortua was fined $1000 for failing to declare previous convictions, also for serious drug trafficking offences.
Atehortua had allegedly flown from Fiji to Rarotonga to provide assistance to the crew of the Nino Maravilla. He was apprehended at Rarotonga International Airport on March 9, attempting to leave the country.
Following his court case, Atehortua left Rarotonga for Tahiti. He was barred from entering New Zealand, Australia and the US. He was also refused by carriers Air New Zealand and Virgin Airlines at the airport due to his criminal history.
Despite widely circulating rumours that the Nino Maravilla has been used to smuggle drugs somewhere into the Cook Islands, police have made no official comment on the exact nature of the investigation.
A police drug-detection dog was brought over from Rarotonga to Aitutaki to inspect the vessel in early March. CINews has been told no drugs were found on board, but that hasn’t stopped the “coconut wireless”, with residents speculating that drugs may have been hidden on a smaller island before the vessel’s arrival in Aitutaki, or possibly dumped at sea.
One resident told CINews that while the vessel appeared to be an old fishing boat on the outside, “inside it had an apparently brand-new engine and no fishing equipment at all”.
The resident added that the Nino Maravilla had run out of fuel and was “supposedly waiting for a plane to drop off fuel prior to being intercepted”.