Seeds of distress in St. Vincent

SUN JOURNAL

Marijuana: Cultivation of the illegal drug quietly rules the Caribbean nation's economy, and some say U.S. policies are to blame.

January 28, 2000|By Mark Fineman | Mark Fineman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

YORKE MOUNTAIN, St. Vincent -- As they tend their little plots in the marijuana fields that blanket the mountainside in full view of this nation's capital, Tornado, Moon and Stump-i lament their miserable Christmas.

First came the Colombians, dumping large quantities of marijuana at deflated prices throughout the region in a bid to take control of the Caribbean "ganja" (marijuana) market.

Then the United States intervened.

Three Marine combat helicopters filled with Caribbean soldiers, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and St. Vincentian police descended on marijuana fields in this remote southeastern part of the Caribbean shortly before Christmas.

During a weeklong operation dubbed "Weedeater," they slashed and burned more than 5 million marijuana plants, 7 tons of cured pot and 250 drying huts, arresting 13 farmers and killing one. All this on a small island that per capita is one of the world's largest producers of the drug.

"This thing is way overbearing, man," says Stump-i, a fisherman-turned-farmer whose 300-pound harvest went up in smoke. As he speaks, he tends a new crop that will be market-ready in three months.

Tornado, whose adjacent plot overlooking Kingstown survived, says: "If the Americans destroy all the marijuana in St. Vincent, they'll destroy St. Vincent. It's the backbone of the economy. It's our livelihood. And now that the Americans have killed us on bananas, we have no other choice."

In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a nation of 32 islands and about 120,000 people, ganja quietly rules.

By the estimates of anthropologists, sociologists and counternarcotics agents, illegal marijuana sales and exports account for close to one-fifth of St. Vincent's gross domestic product; as many as a fifth of adults smoke it regularly; and local politicians and business leaders privately concede that the drug is the driving force in the island's economy -- bigger than its traditional banana crop, which has fallen victim to U.S. trade policy.

Most island business people attribute slumping Christmas sales of all goods to incomes lost because of the U.S.-led eradication operation. The net effect: Weedeater has inflamed anti-American sentiment and rekindled a movement to decriminalize the drug here, even as it failed to destroy the bulk of the crop.

"We didn't touch nearly a 10th of what's up there," says one of the eight DEA agents who joined last month in the week of hacking and burning. The local police commissioner insists that as much as half the crop was destroyed.

"There's just so much of it," says the DEA agent. "To make a significant dent, it's something that would have to be done on a much more regular basis."

The State Department concedes that little of St. Vincent's marijuana ends up in the United States. Most is sold along a swath of the Caribbean, from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Aruba.

So why bother? A U.S. official who asked not to be identified said the annual Operation Weedeater is "basically a training mission for the U.S. Marines" and the Barbados-based Regional Security Service, an anti-drug unit staffed by Caribbean nations.

Besides, the official adds, they were invited.

Ganja may rule here, but local political leaders assert -- and U.S. officials agree -- that it does not govern. This nation is far better known for the largely ganja-free Grenadines, an island chain of white-sand beaches where Rolling Stones rocker Mick Jagger has a winter retreat, the world's rich and famous berth multimillion-dollar yachts, and Prime Minister James F. Mitchell lives.

For Mitchell, the "weed-eating" exercise, financed each year by U.S. taxpayers, is a show of strength, a reminder that politicians are more powerful than planters and that his is a responsible and peace-loving country.

Despite marijuana's economic dominance, St. Vincent has seen little of the crime and violence that are increasing in the Caribbean largely as a result of the region's role as a conduit for Colombian cocaine en route to the United States and Europe.

"The ganja industry here has not been accompanied by much violence," says Ralph Gonsalves, a lawyer and member of parliament who heads the political opposition. "You've had instances where people will fight over a particular marijuana crop, but you also have violent land disputes over other crops.

"It's simply amazing for an industry that generates so much money to have been so free of violence."

But local police officials and outside analysts worry that the phenomenon might not last.

Rens Lee, a Virginia-based author and consultant on the drug trade who recently studied St. Vincent, calls it and other Caribbean islands involved in trafficking "tinder boxes" that, "for one reason or another, have the potential of turning in on themselves and popping their cork."

"In St. Vincent, this dependence on marijuana is unhealthy," he says. "As long as this is an illegal drug, it's going to be a source of tension."

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