Bedsheets look like they have not been washed in weeks, ashtrays everywhere overflow with butts, and bags of rice sit on the floor near what appear to be rat droppings, said journalists who toured the ship Tuesday with President Ricardo Martinelli.
Bits and pieces of crew gear and other equipment litter the narrow passageways, rusty pipes seem almost ready to burst, and exposed electrical wiring was visible in some of the crew compartments.
About the only thing looking fresh on the 510-foot bulk freighter is the red, white and blue flag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the communist-ruled country’s official name, painted across the ship’s 30-foot wide black smokestack.
Health department crews cleaned out the worst of the filth on Friday, Mulino said, but the ship remains “a pigsty.”
Attorney General Ana Belfon said Friday she has vetoed all further visits to the ship, arguing that the Chong Chon Gang is now a crime scene and that she is concerned about the safety of the ship and its visitors.
Its 35 crewmen, all North Koreans, are being detained at the home base of the paramilitary Air and Naval Service, “with air conditioning and much better conditions than they had in that thing,” said Mulino, a lawyer who specializes in admiralty law.
They have been appointed a public defender, but have rejected all attempts to interview them and none have given any indication that they might want to defect, said chief narcotics prosecutor Javier Caraballo.
Caraballo said the crew rioted when Panamanian authorities boarded the ship last week because of “intelligence information we developed” that the Chong Chon Gang was carrying drugs as it waited to cross the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The crew has been charged with endangering Panama’s security when they resisted the search of their ship.
As of Saturday, police cadets had uncovered seven 40-foot containers, Mulino told El Nuevo Herald, hidden under 220,000 sacks of sugar stacked “in an extreme or ill-intentioned manner” that makes it more difficult to search underneath.
Fearing that some of the containers are booby-trapped, the searchers have been waiting for explosives experts from the United States and other countries to open the last five containers found. The two containers found first were opened and contained fire control radars for SA-2 antiaircraft missiles.
The cadets so far have searched only one of the ship’s five cargo holds — not four as previously reported. Each hold has three decks, separated by heavy steel floors that are moved into and out of place by massive electrical motors.
Havana has said the shipment was “obsolete” war materiel sent to be upgraded in North Korea, a long time ally. It described the equipment as antiaircraft missile systems, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21s and 15 motors for the MiGs. Five containers containing the fighters and other weapons were found Sunday. Some were still smelling of gasoline, indicating that they were being used until relatively recently, said Caraballo.
It has not explained why the weapons were not declared in the ship’s manifest, why they were hidden under the tons of sugar and why they were being sent to Pyongyang instead of their manufacturers in the former Soviet bloc.
North Korea’s foreign ministry said the weapons were shipped under a legitimate upgrade deal with Havana. But neither Pyongyang nor Havana officials have been in contact with the Panama government since the weapons were found on the freighter. Belfon said that if no drugs are found aboard the ship, the case will be transferred to a prosecutor in the organized crime section — smuggling weapons — while the possible violation of the arms embargo will be decided by the U.N. Security Council. Security Council experts are not expected to arrive until Aug. 5.
“We are still in the discovery process, and this will take several more days, to remove all the sugar and search the entire the ship, “ said Carballo, “and that’s without running into any more surprises.”