March 30, 2006

Drug violence afflicts Caribbean countries

By Linda Hutchinson-Jafar

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (Reuters) - 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


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 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

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

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.