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#3676: AP FWD - Haiti's new label: Drug state (fwd)


Haiti's new label:  Drug state

By MICHELLE FAUL-- The Associated Press

 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Mysterious planes land on deserted highways in 
the dead of night. Gleaming gas stations sprout in a country where one in 70 
people owns a car. Majestic mansions rise, turrets looming eerily over sad 

 Signs of drug money are growing in Haiti, one of the world's poorest nations 
-- supporting contentions by U.S. officials that the Caribbean island has 
become a major conduit for smuggling narcotics into the United States. 
Increasingly, ill-gotten profits are staying in the cash-starved nation, 
fueling accusations that local authorities are tainted and toughening the 
challenge for U.S. anti-drug enforcers trying to slow the drug flow. 

 Haiti accounts for 14 percent of all cocaine entering the United States and 
"is now the major drug transshipment country of the entire Caribbean," said 
Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Criminal 
Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources. 

 With feeble local enforcement and a central location, Haiti is an ideal 
crossroads. It is just eight hours by speedboat from Colombia, the main 
cocaine producer, and an eight-hour journey from the United States. 

 Drugs flow through other Caribbean points as well, especially the U.S. 
territory of Puerto Rico. But with the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy in charge of 
policing that island's shores, and with better organized and equipped 
authorities in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica trying hard to seal off 
their territory, international attention increasingly is focusing on Haiti. 

 In January, U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera flew to Port-au-Prince to urge 
President Rene Preval to take tough measures to fight drug traffickers. 

 Special Agent Michael S. Vigil, Caribbean chief for the U.S. Drug 
Enforcement Administration, told a congressional committee in April that 
"Haiti's weak democratic institutions (and) eroding infrastructure provide 
South America-based narcotics traffickers with a path of very little 

 Some 75 tons of cocaine moved through Haiti in 1999, according to the most 
recent State Department annual narcotics report. That's a 24 percent increase 
over 1998 and at least double the annual amount under the 1991-1994 military 
dictatorship that monopolized the local drug trade and first opened Haiti's 
sea and airports to Colombian traffickers. 

 That dictatorship was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 1994 that restored 
Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. 
Results for Haitian democracy have been mixed: elections this year have been 
repeatedly postponed amid unrest and killings. And many say the country, 
though freer, is more open than ever to the drug trade. 

 "Haiti is on its way to becoming a narco-state," said Ivelaw Griffiths, a 
political science professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville, and 
author of "Drugs and Security in the Caribbean." 

 The evidence cited for drug money investments includes gas stations and 
other new businesses sprouting up in a stagnant economy. Also suspicious are 
many of the dozens of mansions being built in gated communities on hillsides 
overlooking the capital, says Gerard Pierre-Charles, head of Haiti's biggest 
opposition party. 

 Haiti is used to transport drug profits for Colombian and Dominican 
smugglers to New York, DEA officials say. But Haitians also are organizing 
their own smuggling forces, buying their own drugs and laundering the profits 
at home, say the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

 Congressional committees have heard evidence of drug planes tracked into 
Haiti. Two witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated 
Press they saw planes land and take off at night on the main highway north of 
the capital, in apparently drug-related activities. 

 Many loads are dropped in bales from aircraft to Haitian villagers and 
fishermen at sea. Some is then trucked to the Dominican Republic, across a 
porous border, for further shipping. Some goes straight to Miami. 

 Entire villages are said to profit. In March, a French family on a sailboat 
anchored off Haiti's southern peninsula was attacked by villagers yelling, 
"Drugs, drugs." They forced the boat to shore and, finding no drugs, 
furiously set it ablaze. 

 The Clinton administration has been ambivalent about withholding foreign aid 
as leverage. Haiti was recently decertified for not cooperating in the drug 
fight, then granted a waiver because "assistance to illicit traffickers of 
drugs and migrants" would increase with greater impoverishment. 

 Most DEA activity here focuses on helping Haitian officials seize money at 
Port-au-Prince's airport, with $4 million seized in nine months, says Vigil, 
the DEA's Caribbean chief. What slips through is taken by couriers into 
Panama, and some to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, he said. 

 The drug issue is mixed up in Haiti's bitter, inscrutable politics. 

 Opposition politicians and some foreign observers accuse cronies of Aristide 
-- whose Lavalas Party still dominates, and who is himself expected to run 
again for president this year -- of involvement in drugs. 

 Paul Cozigon, Caribbean specialist for France's governing Socialist Party, 
said recently that Lavalas "began in the scent of liberation theology and is 
ending amid the stench of assassinations, arson, corruption and drugs." 

 Aristide refused requests for an interview. But Lavalas spokesman Yvon 
Neptune, a Senate candidate, dismissed the criticism as "political 

 In Haiti's defense, Burt Wides, a U.S. attorney representing Haiti's 
government, told a congressional committee in March that in 1998, more than 
100 police officers were fired on suspicion of drug activity. 

 Despite corruption among police and other law enforcement officials, Wides 
contended, it was unfair to conclude that Haiti's top officials are ignoring 
the problem or themselves corrupted. 

 However, critics note that none of the dismissed officers have been 
prosecuted. While dozens of drug-trafficking suspects were arrested last 
year, not one was convicted, the U.S. State Department says. Many were 
quietly freed from prison, often by government officials, judges and police 
officers, according to Haitian government reports. 

 "Under the military, the drug trade at least was clandestine. Now it's right 
in your face," said opposition leader Pierre-Charles.