UPDATE: Captain of U.S.-Flagged Ocean Atlas Held in Venezuela Amid Weapons Smuggling Investigation

MV Ocean Atlas is owned by Intermarine and operated by Crowley. Image via Intermarine

UPDATE: Any and all charges against MV Ocean Atlas, Captain, and crew have been dropped by Venezuelan authorities.  READ UPDATE

The American Captain of the U.S.-flagged heavy-lift carrier MV Ocean Atlas has been detained by Venezuelan authorities amid an alleged weapons smuggling investigation, gCaptain sources have confirmed.

The Ocean Atlas was boarded by INTERPOL, local police, and members of Venezuelas’ drug enforcement agency shortly after tying up in Maracaibo, Venezuela on Wednesday August 29, claiming that they had received a tip that the vessel was smuggling drugs.

A search of the Ocean Atlas failed to turn up any drugs, however, authorities found a locked-away weapons arsenal used by the vessel’s security team during a recent transit of the pirate infested waters of the Gulf of Aden.

Details from this point on are a still unclear. We know for certain that the American Captain has been detained and taken off the vessel (and has returned at times), although we do not know if any official charges have been filed. Reports indicate that the weapons had been listed on the ship’s manifest and given clearance prior to entering port.

At this time we understand that the ship itself has not been arrested but remains in the country until the captain is released or another captain arrives to take command of the vessel.

The M/V Ocean Atlas, one of four heavy-lift vessels of Intermarine’s U.S.-flag heavy-lift affiliate, U.S. Ocean, is operated by Crowley and manned by AMO union officers and SIU crew. The 8,000 DWT vessel, with 400 metric tons lifting capacity, is particularly well suited for the movement of project/heavy-lift and military cargoes, the Intermarine website says. The Ocean Atlas has 15 crewmembers. We have been told that the crew has been treated well.

The incident follows the August detention of an unnamed U.S. citizen attempting to enter Venezuela from Colombia whom President Hugo Chavez said may be a “mercenary.” The U.S. and Venezuela have frequently clashed since Chavez, a self-declared “anti-imperialist,” came to power 13 years ago. Chavez, who faces elections on Oct. 7, accuses the U.S. of having supported a 2002 coup against him.

“The disturbing aspect of the matter in Venezuela is the possible politicization by the Chavez regime of the world-wide trend toward criminalization of the master and officers. This has occurred before in that state in similar circumstances such as in the cases of the B Atlantic (2007) and the Astro Saturn(2008) which seem similar in some respects to this case.” says Dr. John A C Cartner, a world recognized maritime security expert and author of the book The International Law of the Shipmaster. “These are well-worn ways toward arresting first, asking questions later and in some cases waiting a year or more before moving toward charge and trial or release.”

Intermarine and Crowley have not yet made any comments concerning the incident.

EVENING UPDATE: gCaptain has received word from sources aboard the ship that ship was visited this evening by State Department representatives from the American Consulate. Further, the location and status of the Captain remains unknown by the crew and sources in Washington. gCaptain has also learned that tomorrow some of the crew will be taken to shore for questioning by local authorities.

UPDATE 2: An INTERPOL agent commented regarding their involvement in the case:

“INTERPOL does not send officers into field, and any interventions are made by the national police of the country concerned acting in accordance with national laws.”

Contact our editors at [email protected] or 805-456-8644 if you have information on this developing story.