Thursday, March 30, 2006

Drug violence afflicts Caribbean countries

Linda Hutchinson-Jafar:

More than a dozen gunmen attacked a gas station in Guyana late last month, fired on passing cars, torched a house and machine-gunned the occupants of another. Eight people died in the rampage.

Somehow, say police in the jungle-clad Caribbean country, the attack was linked to a high-speed chase between the Guyanese coast guard and a trawler escorted by two speedboats as it carried suspected drugs down the Demerara River.

Such tales of blood and violence are increasing in the Caribbean as the infiltration of Colombian cocaine and heroin, the spread of regionally grown marijuana and the growing corruptive power of hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money threaten the foundations of small democracies, U.S. and Caribbean officials say.

Drug-fueled violence, for example, drove Jamaica's murder rate to a new record high in 2005, making it one of the most murderous countries in the world.

"...It is not far fetched to conceive of the insidious influence of drug lords spreading more easily throughout the society and eventually reaching the highest levels of our political, security and legal systems," Patrick Manning, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, warned recently.

In the State Department's 2006 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Washington said drugs, gun-running and corruption were so rife in parts of the Caribbean that some countries could even be "ripe for exploitation by terrorist organizations."

South American traffickers had reportedly taken up residence on the tiny islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, which lie about a third of the way from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to Trinidad and Tobago, the report said.

"The police drug unit on St. Kitts has been largely ineffective," it added.

In Guyana, the estimated $150 million earned every year by cocaine traffickers was equivalent to 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product -- giving them enormous economic and political clout -- according to a calculation by the U.S. Embassy there.

"Drug trafficking and money laundering appear to be propping up the Guyanese economy. Known drug traffickers have acquired substantial landholdings and timber concessions, are building large hotel and housing developments, and own retail businesses that sell imported goods at impossibly low prices," the U.S. report said.

"The drug trade generates violent armed groups who act as if they are above the law and who threaten Guyana's fragile democracy, and drug traffickers may use their ill-gotten gains to acquire political influence."

In Jamaica, long the biggest producer and exporter of marijuana in the Caribbean, violence spawned to a large extent by the drug trade killed 1,669 people in 2005, compared with the previous annual record of 1,471 murders the year before.

A crackdown by police -- aided by British constables -- reduced the number of murders in January.

Lawless and impoverished Haiti, which has not had an effective government since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed in an armed revolt in February 2004, continues to be a significant transit route for Colombian cocaine smuggled to the United States.

Haiti has 1,125 miles (1,810 km) of unpatrolled shoreline, no security in its ports and its police force is notoriously corrupt, the U.S. report said. Cocaine airdrops and sea shipments from Colombia, Venezuela and Panama are believed to be on the increase.

Haiti's neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic, is also tainted by corruption and weak government and has become a major transit route not just for cocaine and heroin, but also for MDMA, or ecstasy, which is imported from Europe.

Trinidad's national security minister, Martin Joseph, said around 66 known gangs with an estimated 500 hardcore members were believed to be fighting over the lucrative drug trade in the twin-island nation near Venezuela, which borders Colombia and which U.S. law enforcement agencies say has become an important transit route for Colombian cocaine.

"It is the cocaine trade that is fueling a lot of criminal activities in Trinidad and Tobago and a new development is that the drugs are coming with guns and the guns stay, while the cocaine goes," said Joseph.

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