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The BBC's Peter Greste reports
"Port-au-Prince is known locally as Cocaine City"
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The BBC's Philip Fiske
"The majority of women in prison in the Caribbean are serving sentences for drug trafficking"
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Tuesday, 16 May, 2000, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Haiti 'weak link' in drug chain
Port-au-Prince docks
Tonnes of cocaine pass through Haiti's ports
By Peter Greste in Port-au-Prince

Authorities in the United States say Colombian drug lords have taken advantage of political instability and poverty in Haiti, to turn it into the most important transit point for cocaine in the Caribbean.

According to a recent State Department report, traffickers last year directed 15% of the cocaine consumed in the US through Haiti - a total of 75 tonnes. That figure is up 24% on the previous year.

I think the instability right now in that country is lending itself as an area of vulnerability

Miami Customs Service chief, Frank Figueroa
The Haitian authorities managed to intercept 375kg - less than half of 1% of the total.

Most of the cocaine enters in and around Miami.

"I think the instability right now in that country is lending itself as an area of vulnerability," said the Miami Customs Service chief Frank Figueroa.

"The Colombian cartels have realised that, and traffickers are always looking for that weak link in the chain. It just so happens that Haiti is that weak link."

Haitian women
The drugs trade seems an easy way out of poverty
Analysts say there are three reasons for Haiti's role in the drugs chain.

First, the Caribbean country is geographically close to Colombia which supplies the vast bulk of cocaine. It takes a fast smuggler's boat a little over an hour to cover the stretch of water between the two countries.

Secondly, a political crisis has left Haiti without any effective government for almost three years. The dispute between the opposition and President Rene Preval has all but destroyed the country's infrastructure and its institutions, making it easy for traffickers to evade the badly weakened authorities.

I have just 26 officers to cover the whole country, and although we do our best to make sure they aren't corrupt, it's impossible to monitor them all the time with the resources we have

Mario Andresol, head of Haiti's Drug Squad

And thirdly, as the poorest country in the western hemisphere with 80% of the population living in poverty, the country has a ready supply of people willing to help the traffickers in return for a worthwhile income.

It also makes it easy to bribe police and judges who typically earn less than $300 a month.

"How can we possibly make an impact on the drugs passing through here?" asked the head of the Haitian Drug Squad, Mario Andresol.

"I have just 26 officers to cover the whole country, and although we do our best to make sure they aren't corrupt, it's impossible to monitor them all the time with the resources we have."

But he added that there was no way he could do his job effectively without the support of lawmakers.

"Our laws are weak, our judicial system doesn't work, and we have no way of fixing things with the government in its current state," he said.

Bribery and corruption

An internal police report admitted that not one person arrested on drugs charges in the past five years has ever gone to trial.

The counter-narcotics squad insists that isn't because it's not doing its job. The squad arrested 94 people last year alone. Mr Andresol blamed a corrupt judiciary.

Haiti Coast Guard on patrol
Haiti's Coast Guard do their best on limited resources
"All I can guess is that they bought their way out. It's not hard to do with wages as they are, compared to the money they can offer," he said.

In a rare success in an otherwise dismal record, the squad did manage to run a sting operation against alleged trafficker Emanuel Thibauld last year.

But they couldn't have done it without the support of the US authorities.

The Haitians seized almost 100kgs of cocaine, five luxury cars, $400,000 in cash and Thibauld's $2m home.

But it was the US police who arrested Thibauld himself.

The Haitian police are working closely with their American counterparts in a bid to close some of the gaps, but it's a huge job.

Help from America

Another branch of the police actively involved in counter-narcotics operations is the Haitian Coast Guard. But their story is also painfully familiar.

The entire unit has just nine relatively flimsy craft to patrol a coast 1,500km long. And none of their boats are capable of cruising in the rough southern seas that separate Colombia and Haiti.

The US Coast Guard provides all the equipment, uniforms and training for the Haitians, covering almost 70% of their running costs.

But short of monitoring the shipping in the calmer waters of the established harbours, there's little they can do on their own, according to Coast Guard commander Leon Charles.

"We've managed to make life difficult in some of the ports closer to Colombia, like Gonaive," he said. "Before we started regular checks there, most of the boats seized in Miami came from there, but now they've had to move elsewhere."

But ultimately Haiti is open to the drug barons.

"I don't expect to see any improvement soon," said Frank Figueroa in Miami. "It's going to be difficult [to stop the cocaine] as long as the political situation remains the way it is."

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