Drug cartels turn weak Haiti into transshipment point Neophyte security forces are ill-equipped to halt cocaine headed for U.S.

August 02, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Drug traffickers taking advantage of Haiti's location, weak institutions and inexperienced police force have turned the country into a major transshipment center for cocaine en route from Colombia to the United States.

In 1996, an estimated 5 percent to 6 percent of the cocaine destined for the United States was moved through Haiti. By the end of 1997, the figure had increased to 19 percent and climbing. By some estimates, that means up to 50 tons annually pour through Haiti.

"When it comes to the matter of illegal narcotics, I must report to the Senate that the situation in Haiti is grave and even approaching a crisis," Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio told the Senate after visiting Haiti this year.

"Because of Haiti's weak political and economic condition, this country is becoming increasingly attractive to international drug traffickers," he said. "The United States must pay close attention for there is a threat that Haiti could turn into a full-fledged narco-state."

In a sign of growing U.S. concern, the Drug Enforcement Administration is increasing its presence in the country -- from one to seven agents in the coming months.

Law enforcement officials say much of the cocaine arrives by so-called "go-fast" boats from Colombia's north coast to Haiti's southern peninsula -- a 10-hour trip if the weather is right.

Once in Haiti, it's easy enough, given the rugged terrain and few police stations, to get it into the Dominican Republic. From there, Dominican drug traffickers working with Colombians move it on to the United States where, in many cases, the Dominicans also handle the distribution.

Cocaine has also been known to arrive in freighters plying the Caribbean and leave the same way, often in vessels bound for Miami.

And at least five times this year, substantial shipments have been seized at the Port-au-Prince airport after arriving in untagged baggage aboard COPA airline flights from Panama.

Although the names of a few Haitians widely rumored to be involved in drug trafficking are circulated here, they are said to be only the junior partners of the Colombians and Dominicans.

"Haiti's role is to provide a commercial service" for the Colombians and the Dominicans, or, alternatively, to move it through the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas, says a U.S. official.

As elsewhere, however, it's said that increasingly the Haitian partners are paid in product, not cash, giving rise to a still-limited but growing local consumption problem.

Operation Frontier Lance, a joint seagoing three-month anti-drug operation involving the United States, the Dominican Republican and Haiti earlier this year, apparently temporarily disrupted the sea route, forcing traffickers to concentrate on air drops, according to some officials.

"There were very few seizures, but the goal was to disrupt operations to make things difficult for the smugglers and force them from go-fast boats to air drops," said a U.S. official involved in the operation. "Air drops are more expensive and less reliable."

Putting an end to the traffic, however, is easier said than done, U.S. officials say. The State Department's 1998 International Narcotics Strategy Control Report sums up many of the reasons.

"Haiti remains a transit country for drugs owing to its unprotected coastline, inexperienced police force, moribund judiciary, thriving contraband trade and weak customs oversight capability," says the report.

The government of Haiti, it adds bluntly, "lacks the law enforcement capacity to effectively challenge organized drug trafficking."

In addition, anti-drug legislation has been held up by a year-long political crisis that has left the country with a barely functioning government.

The political crisis has taken a toll on enforcement morale as well, according to officials. So has corruption. In 1997, 21 policemen were arrested on drug corruption charges.

In an interview earlier this year, Pierre Denize, Haiti's police chief, acknowledged the problem: "Sure, they [traffickers] love Haiti, understandably so," he said. "This is the regional point of least resistance."

U.S. officials generally credit Denize and Robert Manuel, the country's secretary of state for security in the Justice Ministry, as willing collaborators in the anti-drug effort, but acknowledge that serious organizational, jurisdictional and resource problems exist in the country's enforcement efforts.

A 25-member counter-narcotics unit and a 96-member Coast Guard, both part of the Haitian National Police, are the principal Haitian elements against drug trafficking.

So far, however, the counter-narcotics unit -- equipped by the United States with seven motorcycles, four Jeep Cherokees and five four-wheel drive pickups -- has been a disappointment, say officials.

The unit -- whose chief is a 22-year-old with no experience -- was at one time barred access to the airport in a jurisdictional dispute with airport customs security that has since been resolved.

That leaves the Haitian Coast Guard, which has recently seen its manpower more than doubled from 46 to 98, operating from a single base in Port-au-Prince. The goal is to establish a second Coast Guard base in Jacmel and eventually one in Cap Haitien.

"When we consider the top priorities in U.S. policy toward Haiti, counter-narcotics matters should be clearly at or near the top of the list," DeWine warned his Senate colleagues.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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