[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

#3052: Haiti Takes On Major Role in Cocaine Trade (fwd)


Wednesday, March 29, 2000 LA TIMES                                 
Haiti Takes On Major Role in Cocaine Trade 
LA TIMES By MARK FINEMAN, Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti--Increasingly lawless, corrupt and  poor, Haiti
has become pivotal to a multibillion-dollar business in cocaine,
according to sources here and law enforcement officials in the United
States.  They say a Haitian pipeline is flooding the U.S. with the drug,
even as the narcotic further corrodes this island nation's society,     
its economy and its few government institutions. Through sophisticated
and wealthy local smuggling organizations that are quickly becoming a
cartel unto themselves,the U.S. government estimates, more than 135 tons
of Colombian cocaine have transited Haiti en route to the U.S. in the
last two years. At the same time, tens of millions of dollars in cash
profits from U.S. sales are flowing back to and through Haiti's
unregulated economy, some headed to drug barons in Central       America
and Colombia but the rest now enriching an entire class of nouveau riche
in Haiti whose power is growing exponentially in         an otherwise
impoverished and rudderless land.                          Nearly 100
mansions are under construction in a single sprawling, walled enclave
here in Port-au-Prince, the capital of a nation where money laundering
is legal and where, most analysts say, drug proceeds have penetrated
banks, other businesses and even some of the ongoing political campaigns
for long-delayed national elections.U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
officials estimate that,along with the cash, Haitian freighters have
smuggled in 1,000 weapons from the U.S. in the last 18 months. Most of
these cheap handguns, shotguns and automatic pistols are believed to
have gone to drug gangs and politicians.       Already, the cocaine
trade functions with near-impunity. U.S.      officials say that
corruption remains a driving force within Haiti's customs operations,
its port authority and a police force that was    created, financed and
trained at U.S. taxpayer expense.Despite an estimated cocaine flow
through Haiti last year of nearly 75 tons, up 24% from 1998, a U.S.
State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report
released this month said Haitian authorities seized just 950 pounds of
the drug in 1999--a mere one-third of their 1998 haul.   The report
added that none of 25 new, U.S.-trained Haitian counter-narcotics
officers have been deployed, that there were          only 72 drug
arrests--and no convictions--last year, and that     drug-corrupted
police are routinely dismissed rather than prosecuted.   In all, the
report asserted, 14% of the cocaine sold in the United States now passes
through this small Caribbean nation of about 7 million people. Villagers
Take What They Can So ingrained has the trade become in Haitian society
that entire villages have come to subsist on what they can siphon from
it.In separate incidents in recent weeks along the country's 
unpatrolled southern coast, where Colombian cocaine boats    routinely
put in, villagers attacked and later sunk the sailboat of a  vacationing
French family and boats belonging to Cuban fishermen in the mistaken
belief that cocaine was on board. And in the north, where cocaine-laden
planes routinely land both day and night, a village celebrated after it
commandeered a shipment from a jeep that had flipped over at a nearby
landing strip."Haiti's weak democratic institutions, fledgling police
force and eroding infrastructure provide South American-based narcotics
traffickers with a path of least resistance," the State Department
report said.But interviews with U.S. officials from four federal
agencies policing the drug trade, and with sources in Haiti, make clear
that the Haitians have become an organized smuggling force in their own
right--and that their profits are amplifying the corruption of  an
economy in which the average annual wage is officially put at
$400."You're seeing a transformation," said Frank Figueroa, the
 U.S. Customs Service agent in charge of the agency's Miami office,
which has borne the brunt of the Haitian cocaine boom.The Haitians are
now smuggling their own dope. And that's a bad sign for us."It shows
they've developed their own infrastructure in Haiti. . . We could have
an epidemic in no time."By most standards, the epidemic has already
begun. And behind it is a combination of ingenuity, geography, anarchy
and voodoo.During the past five months, U.S. Customs officers along the
Miami River have uncovered more than a ton of pure cocaine arriving from
Haiti--but not until after agents in gas masks spent tens of thousands
of dollars drilling deeply through mud, human waste and voodoo icons
into the sealed, hollowed-out keels of  five aging Haitian
freighters.    Customs and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
agents,meanwhile, have found millions in cash going back to Haiti in the
same types of vessels. Last year, on one rusty cargo ship, $1 million in
small bills was found inside
toolboxes.                                            Although U.S.
counter-narcotics officials in Miami blame Haiti's feeble drug
enforcement on a police force in which dozens of officers have been
implicated in the drug trade in recent years,U.S. law compounds their
frustration.One of the freighters that Customs seized last month, the
168-foot Croyance, had been seized and auctioned by the U.S.government
about a year earlier, only to end up back in the hands of Haitian
traffickers.The World War II-era supply vessel also illustrated the    
growing sophistication of the smugglers. When it was first seized     
by Customs in November 1998 as the Mon Repos, agents found 485 pounds of
cocaine in a false compartment in the ballast tank.Last month, agents
searched for days before they found 541 pounds of the drug welded inside
the vessel's narrow, underwater keel.But the Croyance and the four other
Haitian vessels on the Miami River that Customs targeted, seized and
drilled into in early February represented one of U.S. law enforcement's
few  success stories in its effort to break the Haitian
connection.Another case on file in Miami federal court provides a
chilling historical backdrop to the Haitian cocaine boom. Among the 13 
Haitians and Americans indicted in that 1997 case was former Haitian Lt.
Col. Michel-Joseph Francois, one of three military officers the U.S.
targeted for removal when it sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994 in
Operation Restore Democracy.                                          
Francois was Port-au-Prince's police chief under the military regime
that ousted elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. He is
charged with nothing less than helping transform the nation into what
U.S. law enforcement officials say it is again becoming.The indictment
stated: "It was the purpose and object of the conspiracy to establish a
cocaine transportation and distribution network through the Republic of
Haiti, employing in large part the political and military institutions
of that country, and to use that network, and other means, to import and
subsequently distribute thousands of kilograms of cocaine in the United
States, thereby reaping millions of dollars in illicit profits."       
The 32-page indictment contended that the Haitian regime joined hands
with the most powerful Colombian drug cartels to use Haiti's airports
and seaports--even constructing new landing strips--as cocaine transit
points to U.S. cities ranging from Miami to Chicago to New York.
U.S. Investigates Honduras Link
Half the defendants in the case were convicted in 1998 and  are
appealing. But Francois remains in Honduras, where he took refuge after
he fled Haiti just days before the U.S. deployment that returned
Aristide to power. A U.S. attempt to extradite  Francois was rejected by
the Honduran Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote in July 1997, and U.S.
authorities are investigating whether  he is now using his base in
Honduras to help orchestrate the  current upsurge in smuggling."It's not
a big leap to assume that Francois is still involved in directing the
traffic from Honduras," said FBI investigator Hardrick Crawford, former
supervisor of the squad specializing in Haitian drug traffic.           
Authorities in Miami say another key defendant in the case, Beaudoin
Ketant, is believed to be in Haiti--one of several fugitives from U.S.
drug charges whom the government of Haitian President Rene Preval, who
succeeded Aristide in 1996, has declined to extradite to the U.S.       
Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based legal advisor to Preval's  government, says
Haiti's extradition treaty with the U.S. does not cover drug offenses.
"Haiti cannot ignore its own laws," he said. "The Haitian government
isn't a bounty hunter." Kurzban also claims that the U.S. is not doing
enough to share intelligence information and sophisticated
counter-narcotics equipment with Haiti. "It's almost ridiculous to blame
Haiti, which has no resources  and is being inundated by some pretty
sophisticated people," Kurzban said. "Guys like Aristide and Preval know
exactly what's been going on, and they know exactly what it means to
have these drug gangs take over. This is not something they want."     
The State Department, which has helped supply Haiti with a handful of
aging Coast Guard patrol boats and is building an operations center for
the new anti-drug squad in the northern port  of Cap-Haitien, expressed
only "guarded optimism" about stemming the cocaine flow in the year
ahead. th national elections again postponed by Preval this month,"there
is considerable concern that the Haitian National Police will become
politicized or corrupted to the point where  counter-narcotics
operations may be compromised." "Haiti is therefore engaged in a race
against time," the report concluded, "to see whether the ability of the
[government] to combat narcotics trafficking can outstrip its corrosive
effects on Haitian society."