A festering scandal over illicit arms sent from Israel to Antigua last year and then mysteriously transshipped to the Colombian drug cartel has embarrassed Washington and Jerusalem and may bring down the corruption-ridden, family-ruled government of this Caribbean microstate.
In the still-shadowy transaction, an illegal shipment of 100 Uzi submachine guns, 400 Galil assault rifles and 250,000 rounds of ammunition, ostensibly ordered for Antigua’s 70-man Defense Force, went instead to Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, one of the top three barons of the Medellin drug cartel. Rodriguez Gacha was shot and killed last December by Colombian police.
A purchase order purporting to legitimize the shipment and guarantee Antigua as its final destination bore the name of the elder son of Prime Minister Vere C. Bird, 81-year-old patriarch of the scandal-prone clan that has dominated this two-island Caribbean nation, formally called Antigua and Barbuda, since 1951.
Although there is no such post in Antigua, the document identified the son, Vere Bird Jr., as “minister of national security.” Despite the irregularity of the guarantee, the fictitious title and the disproportionate quantity of arms for such a small security force, Israel apparently accepted the suspect document in place of the customary “end user certificate” routinely required in government-to-government arms deals, officials here said.
“There’s no way in the world that letter would be accepted by a government in a legitimate deal,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The officials said Israeli complicity was also suggested by the presence of an Israeli army officer who escorted the arms to Antigua but raised no objection when, in an evidently prearranged switch, the arms were transferred with the help of Antiguan customs officials to a Colombia-bound ship only hours after they arrived on April 24, 1989.
A controversial Israeli entrepreneur, Maurice Sarfati--sought by authorities in both Antigua and the United States after defaulting on U.S.-guaranteed loans of $1.3 million on a melon farm here--and ex-Lt. Col. Yair G. Klein, a former anti-terrorist officer of the Israeli army who has been charged in Jerusalem with illegally providing military equipment and training to Colombians, are other key figures in the scandal.
The gunshot-riddled body of a third Israeli, Arik Afek, a known Klein associate, was found stuffed in the trunk of a car at Miami International Airport last Jan. 24, and the Miami police are trying to determine whether he, too, was involved.
When news of the arms scandal broke last April, following a formal diplomatic protest by Colombia, attention focused on Vere Jr., 53, as the key Antiguan official involved in engineering the scheme. His brother, Deputy Prime Minister Lester Bird, 52, was first to point a finger, not only implicating Vere Jr. but also hiring Washington lawyer Lawrence Barcella--a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia famed for tracking down rogue CIA agent Edwin Wilson in Libya in the early 1980s--to investigate.
Lester Bird’s hostility toward Vere Jr. is of long standing. In a struggle that has often assumed the qualities of a melodramatic soap opera, the millionaire brothers, both London-trained lawyers, have been vying “like Cain and Abel,” as Vere Jr. once put it, to succeed their faltering octogenarian father, now serving his sixth five-year term as prime minister.
The elder Bird has remained largely out of the fray and out of public sight, shielded in recent years by his protective 27-year-old mistress, Cutie Francis, a powerful local businesswoman who has been at his side since she was a 14-year-old beauty queen.
But protests concerning the arms scandal forced “Papa” Bird, as he is known here, to go public last month and order an official commission of inquiry, run by an impartial London jurist. The commission is scheduled to open hearings here today.
No matter how the inquiry turns out, all three Birds may already have suffered fatal political damage from the arms scandal, according to opposition politicians and some of their allies in the Antigua Labor Party.
“This could mean the end of the Bird dynasty,” said Baldwin Spencer, opposition leader in the 17-member Parliament.
John St. Luce, minister of finance and longtime Papa Bird supporter, said: “People think the era of the Birds is over. It’s not a monarchy, not a dynasty.”
Unless investigators turn up an innocent explanation of Israel’s role in the incident, Jerusalem, too, stands to suffer from the scandal.
Although Israel may not have known that the guns were destined for the drug cartel, “they had to know the deal was fishy, that this wasn’t a legitimate arms deal between governments,” said an official who has closely followed the investigation.
He said that ever since part of the arms shipment was discovered on the late drug lord’s Colombian ranch last Feb. 2, Israel has been “dragging its heels” and offering only token cooperation to Antiguan investigators trying to unravel the scandal.
“Is this just the tip of the iceberg?” asked the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Were there other shipments? What else are they trying to cover up?”
He said that Washington, too, should be embarrassed and added: “The U.S. government has shown a clear lack of interest in clarifying this scandal. We have a good, clear trail here that can actually be followed and perhaps open other trails to the narco-traffickers, yet it’s not being pursued. Why?”
A Washington congressional source familiar with details of the scandal said he believes the Bush Administration has so far stood aloof because it does not want to make diplomatic trouble for Israel or get entangled in an explosive internal quarrel here that might endanger agreements that permit highly secretive U.S. Navy and Air Force bases to operate without restriction.
If Klein, the former Israeli army officer, can be believed, Washington may be covering up its own role in the affair. Klein’s link to the drug lords was disclosed last year when a U.S. television network showed him supervising the arms training of men Colombian authorities identified as drug cartel assassins. He said a few weeks ago, in an unsworn statement, that it all began with plans to build a “survival school” on the island.
Earlier, Klein told the Miami Herald that the deal grew out of a 1988 attempt to establish a base on Antigua where pro-U.S. rebel forces could be trained to topple former Panama strongman Manuel A. Noriega. He said he had no contact with U.S. officials in planning the never-activated training base but that the anti-Noriega Panamanians involved in the deal might have had.
The State Department says it has expressed “concern about these arms” to Israel. Richard Boucher, a department spokesman, said in early May: “We are clearly concerned when government-licensed weapons end up in the hands of narcotics trafficking organizations. We urge governments involved to aggressively investigate the incident and take appropriate judicial action.”
Antiguan officials doubt that their commission of inquiry will get enough cooperation from either Jerusalem or Washington to untangle the intrigue behind the arms transfer. But they are confident that the involvement of local conspirators will be revealed.