British Virgin Islands premier arrested on drug trafficking charges

The premier of the British Virgin Islands was arrested by US agents on drug trafficking and money laundering charges at an airport in Miami on Thursday, sending shockwaves across the UK-administered Caribbean tax haven.

The islands’ governor, John Rankin, confirmed in a statement that Drug Enforcement Administration agents had arrested Andrew Fahie, the elected premier of the BVI, and called for calm. “I realise this will be shocking news for people in the territory,” he said.

Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, said she was “appalled by these serious allegations”, adding that the cabinet of the British overseas territory would hold an emergency meeting on Thursday.

The premier’s arrest was the latest blow to the image of the BVI, an archipelago in the eastern Caribbean whose tiny population belies its outsize influence on the controversial world of offshore finance. More than 370,000 secretive companies are registered there, controlling hundreds of billions of dollars of assets around the world.

The BVI had been struggling to restore its reputation after waves of damaging revelations in the Panama Papers and other offshore leaks. These exposés laid bare the extent to which government officials and business tycoons from around the world were using secretive holding companies to hide the ownership of valuable assets from public view, and sometimes to avoid tax or conceal ill-gotten gains.

The DEA was not able to provide further details about Thursday’s arrest but a criminal complaint and affidavit filed in Florida’s southern district court said Fahie was detained at Miami-Opa locka Executive airport along with Oleanvine Maynard, manager of the BVI ports authority.

The court document said undercover DEA agents posing as cocaine traffickers trapped Fahie and Maynard after a series of secret meetings, ostensibly to discuss bribes in return for guaranteeing three-tonne cocaine shipments from Colombia through the BVI to the US.

In one of the meetings, according to the court filings, Fahie had pulled out a calculator to work out that his 12 per cent share of the proceeds from selling the shipment in the US would be $7.8mn, agreed to allow the traffickers to use the BVI’s ports and requested an upfront payment.

Agents arrested Fahie, 51, after he had inspected $700,000 in cash stashed in designer shopping bags on a plane at Miami-Opa locka airport, part of his supposed pay-off for helping the traffickers, the filing said. “Why am I getting arrested, I don’t have any money or drugs,” the agents quoted Fahie as saying as he was led away.

Maynard was arrested later on Thursday in a separate sting after inspecting the same stash of cash on the plane and being told that $200,000 of it was due to her, the court documents said.

Fahie, a flamboyant figure who plays the organ in his local church and begins government meetings with prayers, had lashed out at accusations of corruption at the highest levels of the BVI government and collusion with drug traffickers levelled by Rankin’s predecessor as governor, Augustus Jaspert.

“It is regrettable that the former governor has made some very unsubstantiated allegations towards the territory which have the potential to be damaging to our reputation,” Fahie told the Financial Times in an interview in January. “We do call on the former governor to apologise.”

Jaspert upset Fahie by using colonial era-powers in January 2021 to order the establishment of a commission of inquiry to examine governance on the islands. Truss said the premier’s arrest showed the importance of the investigation. Its conclusions are expected to be made public shortly.

The inquiry was set up after police seized a haul of cocaine worth £190mn in November 2020 on the BVI. The drugs were found on a property belonging to a serving police officer and was the largest narcotics seizure in the islands’ history.