- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

Operation Restore Democracy, a 1994 invasion of Haiti by 20,000 American troops, had another key objective to stop the flow of U.S.-bound cocaine through what was then becoming a premier Caribbean drug hub.
Six years later, drug shipments through Haiti have soared to unprecedented levels, the latest in a series of setbacks to buffet the desperately poor nation that has seen U.S. troops depart and its fledgling democracy wither with a series of fraud-tainted elections.
"Haiti is a narco-state, no different than Panama was under [Manuel] Noriega, when the state powers, the banks and the police were either acquiescing or actively participating in narco-trafficking," said one U.S. official, who asked not to be named.
Haiti's emergence as a major player in the drug trade marks yet another blemish on the $2-billion-plus invested by the United States on the U.S. intervention that was once hailed by President Clinton as one of his administration's greatest foreign-policy achievements.
Now, international observers refuse to recognize the results of recent parliamentary elections, and, without a functioning democracy, hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid remains frozen.
Haiti's growing drug trade gives rise to suspicions that cash earned by helping satisfy America's appetite for cocaine has become a quasi-substitute for missing foreign aid.
"I've seen no interest anywhere in the Haitian government about getting the international aid unfrozen," said a foreign diplomat in Haiti during a discussion on drug profits.
No one compares former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the ousted leader who returned with American GIs six years ago, with Noriega, the former president of Panama captured in a 1989 U.S. invasion and subsequently sentenced to 40 years in a Florida prison on drug charges.
U.S. officials say they have no evidence to implicate Mr. Aristide in the movement of an estimated 7 tons of cocaine each month through Haiti, a transshipment point midway between Colombia and the United States.
Much of the suspicion instead focuses on Danny Toussaint, a confidant of Mr. Aristide's who won a Senate seat in May elections. Mr. Toussaint has long been known to U.S. authorities.
U.S. police arrested him during his 1997 visit to Miami, believing he had been involved in a series of political assassinations in Haiti.
Released a few days later on a technicality the U.S. intelligence community declined to share its evidence with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) throngs of chanting supporters lifted him on their shoulders when he returned to Port-au-Prince.
Today, Mr. Toussaint leads a classified list, now circulating in the Clinton administration and on Capitol Hill, of five prominent Haitians believed involved in drug trafficking.
Others on the five-man list include:
Medard Joseph, a former major in the Haitian army and, like Mr. Toussaint, a leader of Mr. Aristide security detail. Also like Mr. Toussaint, Mr. Joseph was elected to Haiti's Senate in May.
Jean-Marie Fourel Celestin, was elected senator as well. Mr. Fourel Celestin gained notoriety outside Haiti in 1995 when Mr. Aristide nominated him to be the nation's chief of police. Parliament rejected the nomination, believing him tainted by drug trafficking and corruption.
Cocaine comes to the southern coast of the impoverished island on a 430-mile trip from Colombia, often by decrepit fishing boats and lately in shiny speedboats.
It moves through Haiti, either overland on trucks that navigate around axle-deep potholes, or by planes that readily turn rare strips of good roads into nighttime runways.
The white powder sealed in plastic either leaves Haiti's north coast, bound for Miami 600 miles away, or moves through the neighboring Dominican Republic en route to Puerto Rico.
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are especially concerned.
"The drug situation in Haiti continues to get worse," said Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican.
Mr. DeWine, who has made numerous trips to Haiti and has been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials regarding Haiti's drug situation, declined to discuss names on the list. But his frustration with Haiti's present rulers was evident.
"My position for some time has been that we need to bypass the [Haitian] government," he said.
The present government, led by Mr. Aristide's handpicked successor, Rene Preval, adamantly denies any involvement in drug trafficking.
Burton Wides, a legal representative in Washington for the Haitian government, calls the charges "pure bunk."
"So there is a list. Anyone can make a list. But where is the evidence? Show me the evidence," Mr. Wides said.
He added that U.S. hostility toward the three senators dates to their opposition to the military junta that drove Mr. Aristide into exile in 1991, a band of rulers that maintained close, if back-channel contacts with Washington during a particularly brutal three-year rule.
Apart from their suspected involvement in drugs, the three senators also share something else in common: Even before talk of drug links surfaced, the U.S. government had banned them from official person-to-person contact with American diplomats and officials because of their involvement in human rights violations that included "extrajudicial killings."
Others on the list are accused of facilitating drug smuggling through corruption looking the other way and taking bribes, U.S. officials said.They are:
The chief of Haiti's national police, Pierre Denize, who makes less than $20,000 a year, but owns an airline and lives in the air conditioned comfort of a huge mansion.
Haiti's justice minister, Camille LeBlanc, who is believed to have profited handsomely since Mr. Aristide's return by freeing Colombian drug traffickers from Haitian jails.
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, expressed his concern by describing Haiti as "an increasingly repressive and authoritarian narco-state" in remarks made shortly after the May 21 elections.
While acknowledging that Haiti is awash with drug money and its attendant corruption, another U.S. official also said there is no evidence that the "executive branch," or President Rene Preval, is either involved or condones the situation.
Nor is there any indication that Mr. Preval's mentor, Mr. Aristide, is involved, the official said. "I do not believe that the next president of Haiti will be a drug thug," the official said, referring to Mr. Aristide's anticipated election this December to another term as president. First elected in 1990, Mr. Aristide handed power to Mr. Preval after elections in 1995.
The growing drug trade makes the historic divisions between rich and poor more pronounced, with new mountain-top mansions being built on the peaks that tower above the slums of Port-au-Prince.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Most people survive on less than a dollar a day.
Yet shiny new gas stations with shotgun-toting guards cater to a growing lot of polished, new sport utility vehicles.
Apart from building a democracy, one justification President Clinton gave for dispatching U.S. troops in 1994 was to stem the flow of drugs through Haiti.
Billions of dollars later, Haiti is in a state of "near-anarchy," said one U.S. academic, who has visited the nation regularly for more than two decades.
"Drugs follow the path of least resistance," added a senior U.S. defense official. "Haiti presents no obstacles to traffickers. Whether this is by incompetence or design, I don't know. My sense is that it is a combination of the two."
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 14 percent of the cocaine entering the United States last year an estimated 67 tons passed through Haiti,a 40 percent rise from the previous year.
Dozens of Haitian police and security officials often those who dared to look into the nation's drug trade have gone into exile, provided they were not assassinated first.
They include Robert Manuel, secretary of state for public security, who fled to Guatemala last October. Jean Lamy, who was picked to take his place, was killed the next day.
Jean Dominique, Haiti's most prominent radio journalist, who had denounced corruption and drug involvement among Haiti's ruling elite, specifically naming Mr. Toussaint, was gunned down in front of his radio station in April.
In the past year, U.S. Customs in Miami confiscated nearly 6,000 pounds of cocaine.
At best, U.S. officials now estimate that just 10 percent of the cocaine that leaves Haiti fails to make it to the United States.
Ships from Haiti that have been seized by the United States for drug smuggling and sold at auction have been seized again later for bringing in still more cocaine.
Haiti lacks any legal constraints against money laundering, which may explain why the U.S. Customs found more than $1 million in neatly bundled bills packed in handyman toolboxes bound for Haiti in February.
Just seven U.S. anti-drug officials currently work in Haiti. They help support the Unified Caribbean On-Line Regional Network (UNICORN), set up by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to share intelligence with Caribbean nations, including Haiti, regarding drug targets and money laundering.
The United States and Haiti have also joined in several enforcement operations to seize drugs and improve communications between police in the Caribbean.
In a lengthy statement from the Haitian Embassy to the U.S. Congress in April, the Haitian government bitterly protested being characterized as a haven for narcotics trafficking.
Haiti's drug problem existed long before Mr. Aristide was restored to power six years ago, the embassy statement said.
Haiti said that it is doing what it can cooperating with U.S. officials and rooting out tainted police but that it lacks the resources, the police or intelligence information to adequately combat drugs.
Tainted police have been investigated, fired and imprisoned as appropriate, the embassy said. It adamantly denied any sanctioned collusion.
U.S. officials are not unsympathetic to Haiti's difficulties.
"There is corruption within the police force, but they are trying to deal with it," said Michael Vigil, the DEA's special agent responsible for the Caribbean, who is based in Puerto Rico.
Others cite the willingness of Haitian officials to work with the DEA.
"I do not minimize the drug problem in any way," Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, told a recent forum on Haiti sponsored by TransAfrica, a Washington-based think tank, "but there has been tremendous cooperation between our two governments."
He pointed out that the U.S. Coast Guard has publicly praised the Haitian government for its cooperation with the United States on drug interdiction.
"We are a law enforcement agency working in a foreign arena. A lot of rumors are brought forward," said the DEA's Mr. Vigil.
"We don't have anything concrete on any of these individuals, nothing we can sink our teeth into," he said when asked about the list of five.
The State Department was equally cautious.
"Certain individuals were brought into the government, and we cannot work with them, but that was for human rights violations," said the second U.S. official.
The official said that he had heard of drug allegations regarding the Haitian officials on the list, but that a State Department investigation had not produced anything "we could take into court."
In April, Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources, held a hearing on Haiti's drug woes.
"Despite years of U.S. assistance totaling billions, Haiti is now the major drug transshipment country of the entire Caribbean, funneling huge shipments of cocaine from Colombia to the United States," Mr. Mica said at the time.
In the April hearing, Mr. Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, asked the Clinton administration's special adviser on Haiti, Donald Steinberg, about Colombian drug links to the Haitian government. Mr. Gilman even mentioned Mr. Toussaint by name.
Mr. Steinberg declined to discuss individuals publicly, saying instead: "We, indeed, have identified that a number of individuals who were suspected of illicit activities are not to have a formal role if the United States is going to be able to support those activities."
When pressed, Mr. Steinberg offered to go into greater detail in a "closed setting."
One preferred route into the United States is from Haiti, through the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, and on to Puerto Rico.
"Once a shipment of cocaine whether smuggled from Haiti or the Dominican Republic by maritime, air or commercial cargo reaches Puerto Rico, it is unlikely to be subjected to further United States Customs inspections en route to the continental U.S.," said Mr. Vigil.
John Varrone of the U.S. Customs Service told the congressional hearing that Haitian authorities rarely present an obstacle to drug traffickers.
"The success rate for importations of cocaine to Haiti is virtually 100 percent," Mr. Varrone said. "Those deliveries not successful are due almost exclusively to mechanical failures of aircraft or vessels and not Haitian law enforcement activities."
To that, the Haitian government complains that the United States could do more if it wanted.
"The United States put boats around Haiti and stopped all the boat people from coming into the United States," said Mr. Wides, Haiti's Washington representative.
"It could stop the drugs if it wanted to," Mr. Wides said, recalling a period earlier this decade when the Coast Guard captured tens of thousands of Haitian boat people.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide