NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES: The emergence of crack cocaine – a rarity until recent years – is one of the signs of the drug economy in Haiti. The rocks cost just over 50 cents. PETER ANDREW BOSCH/HERALD STAFF
GONAIVES, Haiti – The plane came from the south, as they all do, touching down on the dirt road here as a police convoy rumbled in from the capital to greet it.
In the scrub nearby, dozens of neighbors watched from their huts.
Presence Jae, a charcoal-maker and father of four, had seen the planes many times before that day in January, and he figured just a pound of its merchandise could forever deliver him from his bare-earth existence. But he was uninterested .
”I don’t get involved,” Jae said. “These guys have large weapons.”
For the last two decades, cocaine has corrupted much of the Haitian government so thoroughly that police in full uniform and plain view regularly cordon off highways to let smugglers’ planes land, according to Western officials, court affidavits in Miami and countless Haitian residents who have watched the practice for years.
So much money is at stake that candidates for key law-enforcement jobs pay upwards of $200,000 to get the posts, knowing they can earn it back in bribes from cocaine shipments, according to the Western officials, who monitor drug trafficking.
Now, with a new U.S.-backed government in place and a multinational peacekeeping force on the ground, the flow of cocaine through this impoverished nation continues to flow unabated, despite a spate of recent arrests, the sources said. And they fear that some Haitians are vying for key positions in the new government to reap future drug profits.
SAME AS BEFORE
At least one plane carrying 500 to 1,000 kilos of cocaine lands in Haiti almost every day — the same rate as in the months leading up to Feb. 29, when former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left the country amid a revolt, the officials said.
”Drug trafficking is the only thing that consistently works here,” one Western diplomat said.
U.S. officials estimate that 7 to 15 percent of the cocaine reaching U.S. streets flows through Haiti. The money that traffickers pay to make sure their cargo gets safely through is one of the country’s biggest revenue sources.
So lucrative is the business that many observers suspect that the rebels who helped drive Aristide out of power did so, in part, to seize control of the drug channels. Rebel leader Guy Philippe has been accused of drug trafficking when he was police chief in northern Haiti, and Western officials said they suspect that drug profits financed his rebel group — a charge Philippe vehemently denies.
Haiti is a natural stepping point for cocaine between Colombia and the United States; a weak link midway between traffickers with unlimited supplies and Americans with endless appetites.
”There is so much money in drugs and the country is so poor, it will corrupt any government,” said Leslie Voltaire, a former Aristide Cabinet member. “As the African proverb says, when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”
With the recent revolt, the extent of the problem is just becoming public. In the last two months, U.S. agents have arrested four senior Aristide-era security officials on drug charges, including the heads of palace security and the police drug squad. Tuesday, they arrested Fourel Celestin, a former president of the Senate.
Using information from several defendants-turnedinformants, prosecutors are trying to build a case against Aristide himself. His Miami attorney, Ira Kurzban, has said Aristide fought the drug trade, and that the inquiry is politically motivated.
Whether the agents will go after other factions allegedly involved in the drug trade — Philippe’s rebels, upper-class bankers and corrupt officials of pre-Aristide regimes — remains to be seen.
Some say the United States is using the drug arrests and investigations as a means to influence Haitian politics.
”It’s a way for the U.S. to deter certain people from thinking they can get into politics,” said Robert Fatton Jr., a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia.
No one knows exactly how much Haitians collect in so-called transit fees to get the product through the country. A low estimate is 5 percent of the coke’s wholesale price in the United States. At a minimum, that would pump $220 million into Haiti every year, drug experts say.
But Haitian economists and U.S. officials say it’s likely a close second to the country’s other major revenue stream — the estimated $800 million a year in remittances from Haitians abroad.
”Without these two sources of hard income, it would be very hard to live in this country,” said Kesner Pharel, an economist and chairman of the consulting firm Group Croissance.
Pharel said the drug money shows up mainly in the housing sector. East of Port-au-Prince, builders are turning empty hills into gated neighborhoods of new mansions.
But there are many signs of the drug economy. More high-end SUVs than ever navigate the country’s poor roads. And down in the slums, crack cocaine — a rarity until recent years — is now common. The rocks cost a tenth of what they do in the States — just over 50 cents.
In a stifling hot shack in Port-au-Prince, three men and two women recently gathered on a mattress to get their fix. The apple-sweet smoke drifted out of a pipe made from an old medicine jar.
”I would like to stop,” said Michael Morency, 51, a father of four and owner of the six-by-eight-foot crack house. “The treatment here is too expensive.”
The emergence of crack cocaine over the past several years is blamed for an increase in robberies and violent attacks. But no one knows how many addicts the drug trade has produced here.
The main victim of drug trafficking in Haiti is the perpetually weak justice system.
The Judiciary Police, which oversees the narcotics squad and investigates crimes, ”has always been considered the most profitable position,” because of the opportunity for taking drug bribes, a European diplomatic source said.
When the drug squad of the national police staged a media event to burn bricks of cocaine it had seized, U.S. agents found that what they had destroyed was mostly flour, a Western source said. The cocaine had vanished.
Now, Jean Claude Jean, the newly appointed head of the narcotics bureau, has the daunting task of fighting a tide of cocaine with 53 officers who earn $150 a month. His squad has no radar to monitor incoming planes and only two Toyota pickups to patrol the entire nation.
Drug seizures are recorded in a frayed ledger. Seven years of them fill just 53 pages.
A big bust might net 68 kilos, Jean said, a fraction of what is estimated to come in every day.
”I’m operating with what little means I have,” he said.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of narcotics here is that Haiti has so little to show for its role in such a lucrative trade.
”They don’t build roads and hospitals and things like that,” said Jackie Geleese, 37, a resident in Gonaives.