Anti-Drug Battle Tops Agenda for Outspoken U.S. Envoy to Bahamas

Times Staff Writer

When the new U.S. ambassador came to Nassau to oversee American interests here, mainly the war against narcotics traffic, she did it in appropriate style.

In an unspoken but blunt announcement that she was serious about her role in the drug war, Ambassador Carol Boyd Hallett chose a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration airplane to bring her over from the mainland.

Hallett's pointed choice of carriers scandalized a few Bahamians. "It insulted a whole nation of people," complained Dr. Elwood Donaldson of the Bahamas Concerned Citizens Assn. Neither the prime minister, Lynden O. Pindling, nor the foreign minister, Clement Maynard, was on hand for her arrival. But the press and most community leaders applauded her.

The applause, and the complaints, have continued almost unabated in the 19 months since the slight, 50-year-old former California legislator arrived. And so has Hallett's determination to make a major dent in the enormous quantity of drugs, mainly cocaine and marijuana, that pass through the scattered and hard-to-police islands of the Bahamas en route from Colombia to the United States.

'Undiplomatic Remarks'

During her first year on the job, Hallett privately badgered and publicly chided Bahamian officials in connection with the drug traffic. Her outspoken efforts drew sharp complaints, particularly from Maynard, who devoted a speech in Parliament to her "undiplomatic remarks."

But they also brought praise, including favorable--if exaggerated--comparisons with Moses, Jesus and Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi by a Nassau newspaper editor. An admiring editorial cartoonist dubbed her "Ambassador Halt-It."

"I didn't come here for a popularity contest; I came to get a job done," Hallett said of her willingness to step on toes in a nation where, by World Bank estimates, the drug traffic accounts for 10% of the economy and is the No. 3 hard-currency earner behind tourism and banking.

Whether Bahamian officials were embarrassed into doing better or would have done so without Hallett's goading is not known. Yet her outspoken public pressure and deft behind-the-scenes efforts to step up the Bahamian drug interdiction effort were credited by a senior U.S. DEA officer here as major factors in tightening U.S.-Bahamian cooperation to the point of boosting drug seizures in the Bahamas by 300% in 1987.

The combined efforts of the Bahamian police and defense forces and the U.S. Coast Guard, DEA and Customs accounted for the seizure of roughly 12 tons of cocaine and an astonishing 86 tons of marijuana last year, according to Bahamas Atty. Gen. Paul Adderley. The record was a far cry from the Bahamas' lackluster anti-drug record before Hallett arrived.

For more than a decade the islands were virtually open, providing refueling and transshipment ports for drug planes and boats, most of them operating on orders from the notorious Medellin cocaine cartel in Colombia. By some official U.S. estimates, as much as 60% of the cocaine and marijuana entering the United States passed through the Bahamas. Traffickers like the Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder Rivas, who is on trial in a U.S. district court in Jacksonville, Fla., bought or leased whole islands and were the law unto themselves.

Special Inquiry

It was glaringly obvious that at least some government officials were helping the traffickers. In 1984, a special civil commission of inquiry exposed the widespread corruption of police and public officials, including two of Pindling's Cabinet ministers and some of his closest friends.

Although the commission found no proof of drug payoffs to Pindling, it found documentary evidence that from 1977 to 1983, Pindling and his wife had deposited $3.5 million more in their bank accounts than he had been paid as prime minister.

"It is apparent that the prime minister's expenditure over the years from 1977 has far exceeded his income," the commission concluded.

Under pressure as a result of the commission report, the Pindling government made a show of greater cooperation with U.S. anti-drug agencies. But the situation had improved only slightly by the time Hallett took her post. Few illicit cargoes were seized, and those almost entirely by American anti-drug forces. The lackluster Bahamian performance extended to the courts, where accused traffickers were often set free.

Today, despite the improved cooperation, an extraordinary increase in drug seizures and tougher Bahamian prosecution of drug traffickers, the U.S. State Department still believes Pindling's government is tainted.

"The Bahamian government has not dealt effectively with systematic corruption which continues to make the Bahamas attractive to drug traffickers," Ann B. Wrobleski, the assistant secretary for international narcotics matters, said in congressional testimony.

Pindling himself may be facing indictment soon by a federal grand jury in Tampa, Fla., according to the Miami Herald. The newspaper reported recently that prosecutors are studying testimony by witnesses at the Lehder trial who say they and other smugglers paid millions for protection to the prime minister and other officials.

Yet Pindling and his Cabinet ministers continue to protest their innocence and shrug off years of mediocre Bahamian performance in catching the traffickers. Policing 700 islands in a 100,000-square-mile area is almost impossible, they complain, and, besides, the real fault rests with a permissive American society that provides such a lucrative market for the drug traffickers and has its own share of corruption as well.

Hallett responded in a speech last February that "it's too easy to point to the proximity of the Bahamas, to a large 'permissive' society and the simple logistics problems of enforcing the law on hundreds of islands as an explanation of why traffickers operate here."

"While these factors play a part in trafficking activities," she went on, "the truth is that traffickers come to the Bahamas and engage in their dirty business because they find people here, both foreign and Bahamian, who are willing to help them, to protect them and to protect each other for money, or in some cases out of fear."

Using a Bahamian catch phrase from the days when traffickers dropped bales of marijuana to be picked up at sea, she said, "There are simply too many people that are still willing to 'fish for square grouper.' "

Her remarks drew an angry response from Adderley, a former foreign minister who has been sharply critical of Hallett. Adderley demanded in a recent interview that "when you tell me there is some kind of corruption in the Bahamas, tell me where it is, don't just make generalizations."

And this week, the Bahamian government took out a full-page advertisement in a number of U.S. and Caribbean newspapers in an attempt at "setting the record straight" about allegations of drug corruption.

The ad, addressed to the American people and signed by Adderley, the attorney general, contends that the Bahamas has devoted much of its limited resources to the war on drugs but needs more U.S. aid.

Despite what appears on the surface to be an adversary relationship with her host government, Hallett has won gratitude, albeit somewhat grudging, from Adderley and others for lobbying on behalf of the Bahamas to keep the country from being penalized by Congress for lack of cooperation in the war against drug traffickers. The Bahamas faced a close U.S. Senate vote on whether it should be "decertified" under a 1986 law that cuts off aid to countries that are not "fully cooperating."

Like most of the Reagan Administration's politically appointed ambassadors, Hallett, who grew up in Carmel and still has a home there, has longstanding ties to the former California governor. She served three terms in the California Assembly, one of them as Republican Party leader.

Her husband, James, also 50, is a former professor of economic entomology--the study of insects as they relate to the economic impact of agricultural chemicals--at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

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