- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

SANDY BAY, Nicaragua Eduardo Rayos, two cousins and a few other senior Miskito men spoke animatedly in their 1,000-year-old tongue while a team of international visitors waited in a corner.

It was an unscheduled meeting of the Council of Elders of Sandy Bay, some four hours by boat up the Caribbean from the nearest Nicaraguan town. The meeting was called because of the unexpected presence of a group of foreign reporters.

The men looked serious and spoke solemnly.

Mr. Rayos, president of the council, finally signaled that the TV camera, idle on a tripod, was to be powered.

He drew himself up to his full 5-foot-7-inch frame, blinked in the lights, made an elaborate welcome speech to the guests and confessed: Yes, the tribe is involved in the drug trade. And now they need help.

Several years ago, sacks of Colombian cocaine arrived accidentally, floating in on the tides, in what the locals called a "gift of God."

It has since turned into the devil's own trap, killing young Miskito Indian men and damaging the Miskito culture perhaps beyond repair.

"Yes, we found it on the beach," Mr. Rayos said. It had been tossed overboard by Colombian drug runners during high-speed police chases.

"Yes, we took advantage of it, because we are poor, and because it is money," he said.

Many batches floated into shore, but it wasn't enough. The Miskito fishermen, who knew every inch of the coast and the islands off shore, contacted the Colombians and agreed to help the transshipment of pure cocaine, most of which would cut across Honduras and wind up in Los Angeles, Nicaraguan police said.

A Rayos cousin said the more "educated" tribe members were the first to join the drug trade.

Many are not poor anymore. New houses, more cattle and improved speedboats attest to that.

But now, too, Mr. Rayos said, "The young people have been using it and converting it into crack."

At least nine young men have died, mostly by taking crack before diving for lobster. It is a lethal combination.

Crack ruins lives all over the world. What makes the situation in Sandy Bay different is that the Miskito society is communal. They made the decision, as a society, to become involved with the Colombians.

With the council of elders wanting to reverse the decision, it is starkly evident that after millennia of running the tribe, they no longer can.

"We don't know how we will survive, especially as the new children come along," Mr. Rayos said.

"What I am asking you," he said, "you as journalists, is 'Can you help us?' And this is my statement. Thank you very much for your presence in our community."

The sounds of carpenters' saws and hammers break the idyllic silence in Sandy Bay, a town of 25,000 without roads or automobiles, but with plenty of coconut palm trees gently swaying in the breeze over lush green fields, where cattle graze between fenceless homes.

Traditional thatched-roof houses built on stilts because of annual floods are replaced by wood and block houses on stilts of concrete and steel.

Fresh paint is everywhere, and some of the more elaborate houses are decorated with imported tiles.

The building supplies come from Puerto Cabezas, 30 miles south of Sandy Bay on the Caribbean coast. Most of the blocks and mortar come by slow barge, and the people who are paying the freight don't want to leave the drug business.

Neither does Pedro Heron, a builder.

Continuing to plane a board for a new house, Mr. Heron rocked his head over his shoulder and said, "All these houses are being built with drug money.

"Everyone here deals with narco-traficantes. This community wouldn't be like this without it."

Then he paused.

"There are crack houses here, and they are selling to kids, and this is bad. At least six have died that I know of."

Then Mr. Heron pointed to a newly refurbished, brightly painted church and said, "We are investing for the future."

The church? Is it involved?

Very much so, say the people who know.

"It is a shame, but I have to say that the church, which had been an important support of the spiritual life of the community, has gotten involved. The pastors are getting their tithe," said Puerto Cabezas Mayor Guillermo Espinosa.

Myrna Cunningham, rector of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean, and herself a Miskito, said:

"Usually, when the drug goes into the community, members of the community get together and divide it by each family, including the pastor, including the police, so they would not be affected, the judge, too. It is like a cancer that is affecting the traditional organization of the community."

For decades, the leading religious community in the Miskito areas has been the Moravian Church.

A spokesman for the Moravian Church headquarters in Bethlehem, Pa., said it is "believable" that pastors in Nicaragua would accept percentages of the drug trade.

He said the church was attempting to weed out those who accepted such money, and in fact had fired some last year for similar actions in neighboring Honduras.

Eduardo Quadros, a former assistant director of Nicaragua's national police, used to direct an anti-drug program in the area.

"The drugs in the area come from exchanges between the narco-traficantes and lobstermen and shrimp men," he said.

"What the Colombians are doing is creating a supply system to supply them and support them with gas, fuel.

"Also, what they are creating is a social base, to have [Miskitos] as information source, to have fishermen and captains to guide them during the night because they have lots of experience in the area," he said.

Before long, the Miskitos became users as well as dealers, Mr. Quadros said. "Now we have addiction, tied up with sex diseases, a disintegration and a loss of values," he said.

Miss Cunningham, speaking in her cramped office in Managua, explained that the entire community was involved.

"Usually what happens is any decision in the community is taken by all of the members in the community, and so they divide [the cocaine.] They are involving all of the members of the community so no one will go and act against what is happening. It is a way of corrupting all of the members of the community."

But isn't that at least the community's decision, their choice?

No, Miss Cunningham said: "These cartels really corrupt communities along the different routes they use to take the drug to the north. They use the communities that are facing poverty, facing exclusion, facing discrimination.

"They make them believe that because they can build cement houses, or can do things that traditionally are not able to do, they are important. They make the people believe that they are developing a new kind of development.

"One of the big things in Sandy Bay is that they have prostitutes from Masaya [on the Pacific coast]. So they have mestizo prostitutes; things like this are considered development.

"This not something that the community had decided to do. Drug traffickers have identified and characterized community and know that a Miskito man would feel good if he could go to bed with mestizo woman.

Drugs and unprotected sex traditionally go together. A visiting doctor at a charity-sponsored clinic on Sandy Bay confirmed that the No. 1 problem he saw was sexually transmitted disease, such as AIDS.

Traditional Miskito houses didn't have window panes, leaving the rooms open to the breeze. There was no need to lock doors or windows because most property was held in common and thievery was relatively unknown.

Robberies now plague the community.

Ana Perez Wilfred, the aunt of a drug addict, burst into angry tears when asked if she thought the drug was a "gift of God" to the community.

"It is a cancer, and AIDS, a trick of Satan," she said.

Her nephew had been arrested the previous night for robbing a man to get money for crack.

The police summoned Mrs. Wilfred to court because she was "the only responsible adult" in the household.

Her nephew, 25, a well-paid diver who spent all his previous month's salary on crack, came home naked after having sold his clothes.

The nephew, who declined to give his name, said he was a "slave" to the drug, but blamed the police. When he was arrested, he said, the police asked where he obtained the drug. When he identified the crack house, "they went and just got their share of the drug" to sell themselves.

The lobstermen die because they smoke crack before donning their oxygen tanks and diving. They say it helps their endurance. But police say the divers believe the oxygen helps with the high, and they make terrible mistakes under the drug's influence and die.

Eglantina Lorenzo said that was how she lost her son.

"He wasn't sick or anything," she said, standing by her water well after drawing a bucket a job her son used to do. "He just died."

She pointed to some children standing nearby.

"I am 100 percent certain these kids will use it, will fall into it, without any help from anyone," she said.

In Puerto Cabezas, it took a reporter only a few minutes of asking around to find a crack house, one of several dozen serving the community of some 25,000, mostly unemployed Miskitos.

Inside, a tall, lithe ex-boxer said he lost his electrician's job, his wife, his children and his home to the drug.

A 13-year-old Edwin Pereira, steals to feed his habit.

"Do you want to stop?" a reporter asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"How are you going to do that?"

"When someone like you helps me."

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