Tobago Oil Spill Tug “Solo Creed” Belonged to Panamanian Firm With History of Moving Venezuelan Oil

Tobago Oil Spill Tug “Solo Creed” Belonged to Panamanian Firm With History of Moving Venezuelan Oil - Merchant Navy Info - News

The tugboat behind an ongoing oil spill off the Tobago coast. It has spiraled into a regional environmental crisis. It belonged to a director at a network of Panamanian companies with a history of transporting oil from Venezuela. According to documents unearthed by Bellingcat and the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, the Zanzibar Maritime Authority has validated.

A barge carrying oil capsized and is now leaking fuel off Tobago, raising questions about its condition. Open and legal records suggest that the vessel had water leaks and required pumping services to prevent it from sinking. Satellite imagery traced the final journey of the barge previously identified as the Gulfstream and revealed oil leakage days before it became stranded. The cargo was reportedly bound for Guyana Power and Light, but the company denies involvement.

Newly surfaced documents reveal that entities associated with the two vessels involved in the oil spill in the Caribbean Sea. They were quite active just after the incident. Just a few days after the barge capsized and was abandoned, officials apparently issued paperwork for a new registered tugboat owner in Zanzibar. Trinidad and Tobago officials received a letter from a Nigerian man claiming ownership of the vessels just a day after they publicly named them. However, the available open-source evidence contradicts this claim. The Trinidad and Tobago authorities have sought the public identification of the parties involved. They have asked the owner of the vessels to come forward and claim responsibility for the spill, which has now spread hundreds of miles into the Caribbean Sea.

Family Business

Last month, Bellingcat reported that a user named “MELAJ OFFSHORE CORP” posted the last known photograph of the Solo Creed on MarineTraffic, a maritime analytics platform, on December 24, 2023.

The Zanzibar Maritime Authority provided ship registration documents that listed Melissa Rona Gonzalez as the owner of the Solo Creed during its ill-fated journey. Bellingcat and the T&T Guardian received the registration documents which confirmed that Gonzalez owned the ship from its departure on December 30, 2023, until he abandoned it on or around February 6, 2024. The registration period has since expired on February 29. 

The Zanzibar Maritime Authority confirmed that the provisional certificate of registry that lists Gonzalez as the owner is authentic. They also confirmed that the certificate was issued on November 30, 2023, and that the address listed for Gonzalez appears to be an apartment.

Public data from the Panamanian corporate registry shows that Gonzalez is an officer of Melaj Offshore Corporation and that a power of attorney for Melaj belongs to a man named Augustine Jackson.

Several directors of Melaj, including Jackson and Gonzalez, share their roles with three other companies: Innovation and Engineering Services, Inc.; Milan Maritime Operations, S.A., as shown by the data.; and Milan Shipping Enterprise Corporation.

Officers of Melaj Offshore Corporation and related entities. 

Bellingcat and the T&T Guardian identified Facebook profiles for several individuals who frequently post images from Panama and Dubai. Posts and images on Facebook show that the business is a family affair: Gonzalez is Jackson’s wife. As referenced in a 2016 Kaieteur News article, and Anilsa McNeil Gonzalez and Marilys McNeil Gonzalez are Gonzalez’ children from a previous marriage.

Melaj and Jackson appear to have a chequered history in Guyana and Venezuela. In March 2019, Reuters reported that Melaj had begun transporting oil for the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). In January, the United States imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports. Sanctions have significantly impacted the petroleum industry by highlighting the crucial role of the U.S. banking system in the sale of oil. This is because more than half of the world’s reserves are denominated in U.S. dollars.

Oil Spill Suspect

In 2016, two Guyanese businesspeople filed an injunction against Jackson’s firm over a payment dispute, according to Kaieteur News, a Guyanese newspaper. They embroiled Jackson in a legal clash. Jackson’s mother-in-law, June Elwin, whom the Guyana voter roll confirms, was named in this lawsuit. In court, Jackson countered by claiming that he had been compelled to smuggle fuel across international borders into Guyana. Allegations one of the businessmen called “baseless.”

Later that year, the Venezuelan sailors he employed on his vessel, the M.J. Pollux A, alleged that he stranded them without food or pay. Jackson contested their account.

There are allegations that a PDVSA fuel shipping deal in Guyana in 2016 involving Jackson went wrong. Jackson’s family businesses own several ships, including Solo Creed, Gulfstream, Marilys AJ, Mikayla AJ, and Edidiong AJ. These vessels often sail dark, making it difficult to track their movements.

Gonzales has not made his contact information public nor responded to a Facebook message. However, Jackson acknowledged his ownership of Melaj Offshore Corporation through WhatsApp. He denied having any links to Solo Creed or Gulfstream. He claimed to have a phone number for a man named “Dr. Abraham,” who he said was the real owner of both vessels, before cutting off further communication.

Inconsistent Ownership Claims and Unanswered Questions

During a lengthy conversation on WhatsApp, “Dr. Abraham” claimed that he had bought both ships in August 2023. However, he did not provide proof of purchasing Solo Creed as he claimed. He did provide a bill of sale for Gulfstream, which Bellingcat and the T&T Guardian could not verify. The document, dated August 28, 2023, identified him as Abraham Olalekan and stated that he paid US$350,000 for the Gulfstream. This price was much higher than the auction price ranges in Panama just months earlier. The person who wrote the document mistakenly referred to the ship as “Gulf Stream” (misspelled), even though the ship had been named “Gulfstream” for several years and the company initially purchased it under the name “Sea Marlin.” The bill of sale did not receive any notarization or other form of third-party verification.

Olalekan was asked to provide contact information for the other party named in the document but has yet to do so. The bill of sale for Ivan Dario Osorno (misspelled as ‘Orsono’) appears genuine. However, no open-source evidence could be found to suggest that he had any corporate dealings in the oil or shipping industries. Bellingcat attempted to contact him but was unsuccessful.

Olalekan provided the Bill of Sale and Acceptance of Sale document. It is not sure, and there is no third-party verification. Bellingcat has obscured what appears to be a residential address.

Suspect Makes Conflicting Statements about oil spill

During a WhatsApp exchange, Olalekan claimed he was transporting both vessels to Nigeria when the barge sank. He also claimed that he had not insured them and that the Solo Creed was still going to Nigeria. Olalekan stated, “when my vessel gets here in a few days, you can check them on the AIS and find out for yourself” (sic). When asked why the Solo Creed had stopped transmitting AIS data during the supposed voyage and continued to remain untraceable, Olalekan replied, “I choose what to do with my property.”

Olalekan claimed to have owned the tug since August 2023, which contradicts the Provisional Certificate of Registry from the Zanzibar Maritime Authority. The certificate indicated that the ship was flagged to Tanzania in November 2023 and owned by Gonzalez. 

Olalekan claimed he had no business in Guyana. Which contradicts a second Certificate of Registration provided by the Zanzibar Maritime Authority. The certificate states that the Guyanese company called “Intek Marine Corp.” owns the Solo Creed. The address is in the Eccles neighborhood of Georgetown, Guyana. This second certificate was issued on February 13, 2024, six days after discovering the oil spill.

I acknowledge the text you provided about the ongoing oil spill off the Tobago coast. It includes information about the vessels involved, their owners, and their history of transporting oil from Venezuela. The Trinidad and Tobago authorities have sought public identification of the parties involved. They asked the owner of the vessels to come forward and claim responsibility for the spill, which has now spread hundreds of miles into the Caribbean Sea. The text also mentions the family business of the owner of one of the vessels. Their history of transporting oil for the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

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