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Traffickers exploit Haiti’s weakness

Times Staff Writers

Three beefy men wearing wraparound sunglasses and gold chains leaned against their SUV at this remote border crossing with the Dominican Republic. As one of them muttered into a walkie-talkie, four Haitian policemen pulled up looking like they meant business.

The SUV’s back hatch was opened. The cops eyeballed its load of opaque-plastic-wrapped bundles. One officer picked up a package the size of a bread loaf, appraising its weight with his forearm.

Then the police and the gold-bedecked trio knocked fists in solidarity, traded vehicles and drove off toward the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. And thus ended the drug bust that wasn’t.

Endemic police corruption in Haiti is just one reason drug-running through Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, has more than doubled over the last two years. It accounts for more than 10% of illegal substances reaching the United States and an even larger share of the volume destined for Europe, U.S. and international agents say.

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With counter-narcotics operations choking off traditional routes from Colombia and Mexico, smugglers are finding unfettered paths in lawless Haiti, where poverty, isolation and inept law enforcement combine to provide traffickers a new path of least resistance.

“Why are they bringing it here? Because this is the weakest point in the region,” said Fred Blaise, a Haitian-born Florida police officer serving in Haiti with the United Nations Stabilization Mission.

“Haiti doesn’t have helicopters. It doesn’t have planes. It doesn’t have radar to even know what’s coming and going.”

Little enforcement

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A fledgling coast guard has been restored after a four-year hiatus that followed the flight into exile of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the chaos that ensued. But the force has few officers and no speedboats. The 1,500-mile coastline is wide open to smugglers’ so-called go-fast boats and airdrops.

“It takes only eight hours for speedboats coming from Colombia and Venezuela to get to Jacmel,” Haiti’s police commissioner, Mario Andresol, said of the southern port town of dilapidated gingerbread houses. “Once the drugs get to Haiti, they can be loaded onto vehicles and sent to Port-au-Prince, then north for the trip to the United States.”

Haiti has no army or border guard to patrol the 225-mile frontier with the Dominican Republic. At best, a couple of police officers are sometimes on hand at the four legal crossings.

From Malpasse, contraband can be dispatched across the enormous saltwater Lake Azuei in fishermen’s crude, black-sailed sloops, in all-terrain vehicles that speed over denuded mountainsides into gang-ruled central and northern cities, or loaded into dump trucks at a roadside quarry that is abandoned but for the transactions that traffickers make little attempt to hide.

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Much of Colombia’s cocaine now comes to the southern coast of Hispaniola via Venezuela. Last year, then-U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said the volume flowing through Venezuela had quintupled since 2001 to as much as 250 tons a year. That’s a quarter to half of Colombia’s production.

Rerouting shipments

The Joint Interagency Task Force of the U.S. military’s Southern Command tracked 81 unregistered flights from Colombia or Venezuela to this island in the first nine months of 2007. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that more vigorous surveillance of the Colombian coastline has compelled highly adaptive smugglers to use new routes.

“There is always the balloon effect,” said Vito S. Guarino, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Caribbean Division. “Wherever you put pressure, they go somewhere else.”

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He estimates that drug transshipment through the Caribbean is up as much as 30%.

The drug shipments are split into small packages and smuggled to the U.S. primarily aboard container vessels or the small go-fast boats, and on occasion are carried by drug mules on commercial flights.

Haitian or Dominican authorities are often tipped off about illegal flights and voyages that have been spotted by the U.S. or other nations, but local law enforcement officials are rarely in a position to intercept them.

“We don’t have a single vessel that can go to Ile-a-Vache,” Andresol said, speaking of an island off the southwest coast that is a favored drop transfer point.

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Haitian farmers and fishermen in coastal villages can be induced with a few dollars to store drugs, guard makeshift warehouses or cart the contraband to the next stop on the route, spawning local economies that are increasingly dependent on the drug trade, the police commissioner said.

Narco-trafficking enterprises already are entrenched in central Haiti, having cropped up along the one passable road from the capital to the northern coast.

“We are looking for bandits and gangsters, but we are also finding police and congressmen among them,” said Andresol, who concedes that he can’t trust most of the 5,000 men on his force. Local politicians in Haiti also offer protection to drug runners, he said, fostering transshipment in exchange for a share of the profits that can be doled out to impoverished constituents to bolster their clout.

Andresol, an anti-corruption crusader who has made it his mission to restore a conscience to Haitian law enforcement, said the November arrest of a lawmaker from the central plains town of Maissade, Joseph Willot, deflated his sense that interdictions this year had put a dent in the island’s drug trade.

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Haitian police and the foreign agents often know the identities of the top traffickers but are unable to move in and arrest them for fear of superior weapons and support on the traffickers’ side.

“In St. Marc, there’s 25 or 30 people now with new 4-by-4s. They didn’t have money to buy chicken for dinner before, but now they have these brand-new vehicles,” said a retired Canadian policeman, Jean LaFaille, who heads the U.N. mission’s major crimes unit. “It’s very easy for traffickers to get local people to do things, even to get rid of people who are a problem for them. There probably won’t even be an investigation.”

The drug lords’ reach into Haitian officialdom was also evident this year when a judge ordered the arrest of the head of the Central Financial Intelligence Unit, which has been investigating drug-money laundering as well as other crimes. The unit released more than $6 million in funds it had frozen to secure the release of its jailed director. None of its hundreds of cases has been forwarded for prosecution.

The role of Venezuela

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Venezuela’s status as a favored launch pad for illegal flights taking Colombian dope toward its final market is the direct result of extensive corruption in the armed forces of President Hugo Chavez, foreign counter-narcotics officials say.

Although they don’t believe Chavez is personally involved, these officials say that top uniformed officials reportedly earn as much as $3,000 a kilogram to look the other way as tons of cocaine are flown or shipped out of the country.

The shift of Colombian cocaine to Venezuela for transshipment has occurred in part because of Plan Colombia, the U.S. aid program to fight drug trafficking and terrorism. Flight monitoring technology given to the government of President Alvaro Uribe has increasingly denied traffickers a direct “air bridge” from Colombia to the United States.

The close relationship between Colombian agents and the DEA also built a network of informants, leading to major busts in recent years.

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The ascendant Venezuelan role in drug trafficking has been aided by Chavez’s decision in August 2005 to end more than 25 years of cooperation between Caracas and the DEA. Forty Venezuelan police and army officers who had been vetted and trained by the DEA were reassigned and forbidden contact with U.S. agents. The result has been a dramatic drop-off in interdictions.

In a meeting last month with the new U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, Chavez expressed a willingness to consider reestablishing relations with the DEA. Chavez is said to be aware of widespread corruption and wants to do something about it. Early this year, he replaced his anti-drug director, Luis Correa, and the chief of anti-narcotics police, Jesus Itriago.

The Dominican Republic’s ambassador to Haiti, Jose Serulle Ramia, criticized the Bush administration for allowing its animosity toward the leftist Chavez to diminish relations to such a point that the two countries won’t work together against a shared menace such as drugs.

“It’s very dangerous to politicize this problem,” Ramia said. “We need to do our best to have Venezuela on our side in this fight.”

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With rising volume, slow foreign assistance and traffickers building local power bases, the outlook for blocking Hispaniola’s drug corridors appears bleak, counter-narcotics forces throughout the region agree.

But Guarino of the DEA says they are making inroads, that each raid compels the traffickers to change tactics and spreads a message that the drug lords are not invincible.

“Twenty years ago you could ask that same question about the Cali cartel, about Pablo Escobar,” Guarino said of the Colombian drug powerhouses of a generation ago. “I’m very optimistic.”

carol.williams@latimes.com

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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Williams reported from Haiti and Kraul from Caracas.


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