The father-in-law of former President Jean-Claude Duvalier was involved in a cocaine trafficking ring before Duvalier fell from power Feb. 7, a U.S. official here said Thursday.
The official, who spoke on the condition that he would not be further identified, said the father-in-law, Ernest Bennett, collaborated with Marvin Cardozo, a Haitian with a drug-trafficking arrest record.
Cardozo was the "ringleader" for one of several groups that smuggled cocaine from Colombia through Haiti to the United States, the official said.
Evidence of drug trafficking by a Duvalier relative may make it possible for Swiss officials to bypass bank secrecy laws and release information on Duvalier's bank accounts in Switzerland, the official added.
The accounts are believed to contain millions of dollars obtained through corruption. Duvalier, in exile in France, has denied that he amassed an illicit fortune as president of this impoverished nation.
Bennett was in New York when Duvalier went into exile. Haitian and U.S. authorities say they do not know where he is now.
The official told foreign correspondents that Cardozo "is known as an associate of Ernest Bennett. It's mainly a drug connection."
He accused Bennett of having served as a "facilitator" for trans-shipment of cocaine to the United States.
In a separate statement, an official of the Drug Enforcement Administration said that the DEA is investigating Bennett.
Bennett's son, Frantz Bennett, served 2 1/2 years in a U.S. federal prison for cocaine trafficking in Puerto Rico. After his release from a Florida jail in 1984, Frantz Bennett returned to Haiti.
Persistent rumors have linked Ernest Bennett to drug trafficking since then, but no U.S. official previously had accused the elder Bennett of involvement.
"I don't think he was a kingpin," the official said of Ernest Bennett. "He was involved in one of the rings."
Bennett, a businessman, enjoyed great influence in Haiti before the Duvalier regime fell because his daughter Michele was married to the dictator.
"He had carte blanche to do anything he wanted," the U.S. official said.
Bennett's properties included an airline, several private planes and an automobile dealership. The U.S. official said he has been told that after the Duvalier and Bennett families fled the country, 200 to 400 pounds of cocaine were found in a pharmaceutical warehouse at the Bon Repos maternity and children's hospital outside Port-au-Prince, an institution sponsored by Michele Duvalier.
The U.S. official said he has heard that several pounds of cocaine also were found at Bennett's automobile agency and at a Duvalier mansion in the mountain community of Fermanthe.
"Based on the people who told me, I believe what they told me," the official said.
He said that after Feb. 7, Haitian police officials began talking to U.S. officials about Ernest Bennett as a "godfather" for drug traffickers in Haiti.
'The Godfather Is Gone'
The official quoted Haitian officers as saying: "Before, we really couldn't cooperate with you on certain cases, but now we can. Before there was a godfather. The godfather is gone, and now we can cooperate."
However, Maj. Carrel Occil, head of the Haitian police narcotics unit, told reporters Thursday that he does not have evidence linking Ernest Bennett to drug trafficking but that he is starting an investigation. Occil said U.S. officials told him about a month ago that Bennett was involved.
"Generally, when they provide me with information, I know they are working scientifically because of the nature of their facilities," he said. "So I am inclined to believe what they are saying is true, but we don't have any proof."
Occil said he knew nothing of any drugs found at the Bon Repos Hospital, the Bennett automobile dealership or the Duvalier mansion. He also said he knew of no relationship between Bennett and Cardozo, the Haitian with the narcotics arrest record.
Cardozo and five other people were arrested by Haitian authorities last Dec. 12 in the southwestern city of Les Cayes, where 790 pounds of cocaine were seized.
Cardozo and the other five were freed in February under an amnesty for prisoners that was declared by the new provisional government's minister of justice. The minister, Gerard Gourgue, later resigned from the government.
John Sutton, chief of the DEA office in Puerto Rico, said that Ernest Bennett was detained for an hour in the Les Cayes investigation.
Speaking by telephone from Puerto Rico, Sutton said that the DEA is investigating Bennett. Asked if Bennett and Cardozo were associates, Sutton said: "That is correct. That information is the subject of an ongoing investigation and may result in some arrests."