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Federal agent says Fitial ‘off the mark’

By Agnes Donato

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 10, 2008) – Gov. Benigno R. Fitial yesterday suggested a "conspiracy" behind the anti-drug operation aboard a Shanghai Airlines' charter flight Saturday morning.

Fitial, in a press conference, questioned the timing of the operation, linking it to the ongoing talks between the U.S. and CNMI governments on whether a visa waiver program should be established for Chinese and Russian tourists under the soon-to-be-federalized immigration system.

According to the governor, the federal government may have designed the operation to discredit the CNMI government's claim of ability to monitor the entry of Chinese and Russian tourists.

"This is a conspiracy. We're in the middle of discussing and negotiating allowing Chinese and Russian tourists to come into the CNMI under a visa waiver [program], then all of a sudden this occurred," said Fitial.

For its part, the Drug Enforcement Agency said the governor's claim was "unfortunate" and "absolutely off the mark."

Antonio Marquez, the agent in charge of the DEA's Guam Resident Office, said that Saipan is being inundated by high-purity crystal methamphetamine from Asia, and the agency's sole intent in conducting the operation Saturday was to stop narcotics from coming into the island.

"We are here with a mission to combat drugs," said Marquez. "We [DEA] work everywhere. We even work with foreign countries. We don't go into anything to try to cause problem for local folks."

Fitial said he supports the DEA's efforts to eradicate drugs in the Commonwealth, but is upset by the treatment that Chinese tourists received during Saturday's incident. He said federal agents should not have singled out the Chinese tourists and subjected them to intensive body searches without explaining what was going on.

"I was very disappointed when I learned about the incident. It's like you coming into my bedroom without permission. I completely abhor what happened," he said.

The governor also said he is "seriously considering" whether to pull out the local law enforcement officers from a joint anti-drug task force with the DEA.

In a related news, the tour company that organized the charter flight from Shanghai expressed concern about the negative publicity Saipan is receiving in China because of the incident.

Henry Pun, tour manager at Century Tours, said three major newspapers based in Shanghai and Beijing have reported about the episode. Some of the tourists have complained to the Chinese government's foreign affairs office in Shanghai.

"The public is aware of what happened," Pun said. "We worry that the Chinese government might stop this flight-at least until they receive some kind of assurance from the governor," Pun said.

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