MEXICO CITY -- Panama said Wednesday that it had slapped disorderly conduct charges on 35 crew members of a rusty North Korean freighter carrying “obsolete” military equipment, including apparently two MiG-21 fighter jets, and summoned U.N. experts to ascertain whether the shipment violated U.N. resolutions.
In one of the strangest weapons-smuggling cases in years, about 100 police cadets poured through the hold of the North Korean freighter for a third straight day, pulling out some of the 10,000 tons of bagged brown sugar in a search of what Cuba said would be 240 tons of “obsolete” military equipment that it was sending to North Korea for repair.
Panamanian authorities discovered some equipment on Monday hidden behind the sugar bags when they searched the vessel after receiving a tip it might be carrying illegal drugs. The ship was preparing to cross the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific Ocean after docking in Havana.
“We’re taking everything out, everything. It’s going to take at least until Sunday, and maybe into next week, to unload that ship,” Panama’s public security minister, José Raúl Mulino, said in a phone interview.
Mulino said he was mystified by the Cuban government’s assertion in a statement Tuesday that there were two MiG-21 fighter aircraft on board the 508-foot-long Chong Chon Gang. So far, Mulino said, the planes, which would be nearly 50 feet long and 15 feet tall each, have not been uncovered.
“I don’t know how the MiGs would fit in this boat,” he said. “I don’t have the remotest idea how they would load those two MiGs on the ship.”
The vessel is docked at Manzanillo, a port near the Atlantic Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal where it was towed after Panama sought to search it.
Boarding a vessel before it transits the canal is highly unusual, said Surse Pierpoint, general manager of Colon Import and Export and president of the Association of Users of the Colon Free Trade Zone, a massive commercial center near Manzanillo.
“I don’t remember a similar incident in all the time I’ve worked in Colon,’’ he said. “It certainly makes withdrawing containers more of a hassle because of the security all around the port now.”
U.S. weapons experts arrived in Panama on Wednesday, their British counterparts were expected later in the day, and Panama formally asked the U.N. Security Council to send its own team to identify the Soviet-era equipment, according to Panama’s foreign ministry.
In its statement taking responsibility for the shipment, Cuba emphasized that the military equipment was being sent to North Korea for repairs and was to have been returned to the island. That appeared to be an attempt to sidestep U.N. Security Council Resolution 1817, which bans “the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of all but small weapons to North Korea because of its refusal to halt its nuclear weapons program.
Cuba stressed in its statement that the “obsolete defensive weapons” had all been manufactured in the mid 20th century. It said the equipment included two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two MiG-21 jets and 15 engines for the MiGs.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Núñez Fábrega said in a statement that Cuba cannot legitimately argue that the weapons were nonfunctional.
“The Security Council resolution does not speak to whether they are functional or operational. It just says that warplanes may not be transported to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Núñez Fábrega said, referring to North Korea by its formal name.
New details added to the mystery.
Hours before President Ricardo Martinelli broke news of the weapons seizure Monday night, Panamanian diplomats met with Cuba’s vice foreign minister, Rogelio Sierra Díaz, who flew to Panama to appeal for the ship’s release. His appeal was rejected.
• The Martinelli government said the North Korean vessel’s manifest made no mention of the used weaponry, and would have violated not only U.N. resolutions but also laws governing passage through the Panama Canal.
At least four other North Korean vessels besides the Chong Chon Gang have crossed the Panama Canal since 2010, The New York Times reported, citing a maritime trafficking specialist at IHS FairPlay in London, Richard Hurley. One of the ships, the Oun Chong Nyon Ho, also visited ports in Cuba after passing through Panama, it reported.
In its first commentary on the ship, North Korea asserted that Panamanian authorities “rashly attacked” the ship’s crew, according to Pyongyang’s official news agency, KCNA, citing an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman. It urged Panama to let the ship and crew leave “without delay.
“This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to be sent back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract,” the spokesman was quoted as saying.
Analysts, however, remained stumped.
Why, for example, would Cuba risk a warming trend in relations with the United States to smuggle weapons to North Korea when it would have been easier to bring North Korean technicians to the island? The two nations are not considered to be major weapons business partners.
“Why didn’t the North Koreans just do it in Cuba? Maybe there’s not a lot of industrial capability that the state has there,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Cuba also could have sent the equipment for repair in Russia, said Frank Mora, deputy assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere from 2009 to January and now director of Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center.
“It’s illogical. It doesn’t make sense,” Mora said of Havana’s decision to send the weapons and parts to North Korea. “Why take this risk at a time when Cuba appeared to be trying to improve relations with us. .. . How do you explain what seems to be irrational.”
On Wednesday Cuban and U.S. officials started a new round of immigration talks after they had been suspended for the past two years. The two sides met recently to discuss reestablishing direct mail service between the countries. Such service has been cut off since the early 1960s and mail travels via third countries.
The issue of the ship did not come up during the immigration talks, said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “We’ve told the Cubans that we will talk to them about the ship very soon,” she said.
The ship’s crew and captain were being detained at a naval facility at Fort Sherman, a onetime U.S. Army base on the Atlantic side of the canal, Mulino said.
“They’ve been charged with disorderly conduct,” Mulino said, referring to what he called a riot aboard the ship when Panamanian authorities sought to direct it to Manzanillo for a search last week.
Landay reported from Washington, Johnson from Mexico City and Tamayo from Miami. Miami Herald staff writer Mimi Whitefield in Miami contributed.