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#2329: Haiti now a major route for cocaine entering U.S. (fwd)
Published Sunday, February 13, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Haiti now a major route for cocaine entering U.S.
BY DAVID KIDWELL
Somewhere at the bottom of a crevice beneath foul-smelling bilge in the
keel of the 128-foot Haitian supply ship, federal agents knew there
was hidden cocaine worth more than the average Haitian can earn in
15,000 years. A Customs inspector reached in blindly and pulled out
what looked like a red T-shirt wrapped around a coconut -- all wrapped
in a tangle of white string. It was the vodou curse of the Rio Star
cocaine. Tucked carefully beneath the primitive charm -- in one of the
most elusive hiding places ever conjured by maritime smugglers -- were
238 neatly wrapped packages of Colombian cocaine. It was merely one
shipment seized on an armada of five Haitian freighters found laden with
cocaine on the Miami River in the past two weeks. The seizures are the
latest evidence of what federal agents say is a wave of cocaine coming
from Haiti. They apparently shook the drug smugglers enough that agents
say several Haitian freighters did U-turns at sea and beat a path for
home. More than a dozen freighters are staying put in Cap-Haitien.
``It gives you some idea how enormous this smuggling operation has
been,'' said Vincent Mazilli, special agent in charge of the Drug
Enforcement Administration in Miami. A federal task force has watched a
ragtag group of small-time Haitian smugglers quickly grow into one of
the most formidable smuggling operations in the world. Spread over the
past five years, the fallout has been felt throughout South Florida:
more than 20 unsolved murders, 40 home invasion robberies, gang turf
wars, a massacre at the Miami River, drive-by shootings in North Miami
Beach, cocaine stashes as far out as Weston. ``These are the hyenas
that always follow an organization like this,'' said Hardrick
Crawford, assistant special agent in charge of narcotics and organized
crime at the FBI in Miami. ``There's a rip-off, and then there must be
retaliation.'' Any veteran drug agent knows that cocaine bound for the
United States is like electricity. It always finds the path of least
resistance. These days, that path is a lightning bolt straight to Haiti.
In a land of widespread lawlessness and unfathomable poverty, the
drug-running acumen of a handful of well-connected Haitians has won
grudging respect -- almost admiration -- from federal agents. ``Let me
tell you, they've been beating our socks off coming up that river,'' one
high-ranking drug agent said. ``It's taken a year's investigation by
two federal agencies and some very stellar work on the part of Customs
Service to get to this far. And it's still not over by a long shot.''
Through records and more than a dozen interviews, agents of the FBI,
DEA and U.S. Customs Service last week allowed an unusual glimpse into a
three-year effort to battle the wave of cocaine from Haiti -- an
estimated 54 tons in 1998 alone.
Some of the revelations:
In the home of a boat owner arrested as part of the smuggling
organization, agents found documents linking him to a former Haitian
lieutenant colonel and police chief who has been a fugitive from U.S.
justice for three years, living in Honduras. One of the ships seized
with 541 pounds of cocaine -- the Croyance -- was on its maiden voyage
to the United States since it had been sold at auction by the U.S.
Customs Service in June. Formerly named Mon Repos, it had been seized
at the Miami River on Nov. 10, 1998, loaded with 485 pounds of cocaine.
Ownership records required to be kept on board are worthless to
investigators. Incorporation papers almost always go to straw men who
don't exist or cannot be found. When the Mon Repos was seized, for
instance, notice was sent by certified mail to the ship's registered
owner, La Reine Du Nord Group, at 325 N. South River Dr. It came back
unanswered. No such company exists. All five boats seized since Jan. 29
are registered to companies in Honduras. Intelligence information from
Haiti is nearly nonexistent. Authorities have a general idea of the
shipping routes and the 10 or so major players with close ties to
Colombian drug barons, but specific information stops there.
Vodou threats are nothing new to Customs agents, who frequently pull
charms such as bottles filled with sacrificial animal parts, makeshift
dolls and pictures of Catholic saints from stashes of cocaine from
Haiti. Reports came in from sources last week that one cocaine-laden
ship had turned around at sea after the seizures and that vodou charms
were being loaded into the secret compartment for the return to the
United States. The object: to vex Customs inspectors looking for
cocaine. ``It is like the curse of the mummy,'' said one agent on the
federal task force. ``Some of them believe if we touch it, we disappear
into a whiff of smoke.'' Frustrated by politicians and diplomats unable
to change much in the tumultuous country, the feds are left to wade shin
deep through the human waste at the bottom of a dilapidated 70-foot
converted fishing boat anchored along the Miami River. The Anita was
the last in the armada of five Haitian freighters to yield its cocaine.
Had agents not been handed specific information by other
smugglers-turned-informants, more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine almost
surely would be for sale right now in cities throughout North America.
Nearly 200 pounds of it was buried under the muck at the bottom of the
Anita. The total price tag: $25.2 million.
The investigation culminated late last month when two Haitians living
in Miami -- boat owner Emmanuel Thibaud and Miami businesswoman Clarice
Jean-Michel -- were arrested by the task force on charges of smuggling a
load of cocaine for a member of a loosely affiliated Haitian consortium
that has risen to wealth and power in recent years. Meanwhile, sources
provided specific details about a new and virtually undetectable hiding
place on board the steel-hulled freighters. On Jan. 29, U.S. Customs
began quietly boarding the freighters docked at the Miami River to
check. Even though the agents knew where to look, the cocaine was so
well hidden that it took nearly two weeks to find it all. When
inspectors used drills to find the welded compartments at the bottom of
the 170-foot supply vessel Hardness on Jan. 29, they hit the Miami River
instead. ``We had to call in divers to patch it or it would have sunk,''
Customs Supervisor Bobby Rutherford said. The drills found the cocaine,
but the hollowed keel was so remote that inspectors couldn't reach it
all and they were forced to pull the vessel out of the water and
cut through the hull from the outside. Four others in the armada
followed: the Caribbean Seahorse, the Rio Star, the Croyance, and
finally on Feb. 10, the Anita.
Meanwhile, agents of the FBI, DEA and Customs searched the 2781 NW
108th Ave. home of Emmanuel Thibaud, who was caught in recorded
conversations last year with an alleged Haitian drug smuggler setting up
the distribution of a shipment. That alleged smuggler, known as Founa
Jean Luis, is now a fugitive believed to be living in a wealthy enclave
of Jacmel, a southern coastal city in Haiti. Jacmel is believed to be a
key drop-off point for Colombian cocaine, which is then trucked up the
main Haitian highway to various ports -- all the way to the northern
coastal city of Cap-Haitien. While agents searched Thibaud's home on
Jan. 29, they found a promising new lead -- documents linking Thibaud to
a notorious suspected drug smuggler with strong military and political
ties within Haiti. Exiled Haitian Police Chief Joseph Michel Francois,
a powerhouse among Haiti's ousted military rulers, has been living in
Honduras since his exile in 1994. A former lieutenant colonel, he is the
son of a member of the presidential guard that served ex-dictator
Francois Duvalier. He became police chief in 1991 after the
military coup that temporarily routed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
from power. Francois was indicted in the United States in 1997 along
with six others accused of a 10-year, 33-ton cocaine smuggling ring
through Haiti. He successfully fought extradition from Haiti and remains
a fugitive. He is ``strongly suspected'' to be at or near the top of
the Haitian drug consortium, according to federal authorities.
Said one high-ranking drug agent: ``We know there is no way an
operation of this magnitude could be run so flagrantly without a lot of
connections and political power. In Haiti, a little bit of money goes a
long, long way.'' Haitian officials have acknowledged their corruption
problem and the chaos of their government institutions. They say they
are trying hard to make progress. Said the drug agent, ``The country is
wide open. Corruption is pervasive, and right now there is nothing in
Haiti to stop them.''