WASHINGTON — ON May 31, 1992, a United States drug enforcement agent stood in the twilight on the rocky Haitian coast and watched as a small plane dropped 900 pounds of cocaine into the water. Several small boats picked up the packages and disappeared over the horizon.
The agent had been tipped off that the drop would take place. But he could only stand and watch, because the Haitian military officers in charge of antinarcotics operations could not be found.
``Call it what you want, but between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., we couldn't get anyone,'' the agent said.
The story illustrates the frustrating nature of much of the US antinarcotics effort in Haiti. Sources interviewed say high-ranking Haitian military officers, who were working directly with the Colombian drug cartels, also held top positions within the joint US-Haitian antinarcotics operation.
Since the 1991 military-backed coup that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the political violence that prevented his return Oct. 30, the fight against drug trafficking in Haiti has slowly ground to a halt.
According to a confidential Senate staff memo, the two agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) who remain in Port-au-Prince are confined to the US Embassy and ``are not able to do anything of significance right now. Their work is effectively shut down.''
Two US Justice Department sources in the last month have said the agents are expected to be brought back to the US soon. A DEA spokesman in Miami denied that last week.
The Center for Information and Coordination, the Haitian intelligence center created by the DEA in 1987, has also effectively shut down. It was originally equipped with computers, radio frequency scanners, flight-monitoring teletypes, and marine scanners. According to a confidential DEA report, written this fall, the equipment has fallen into disrepair and intelligence gathering has been reduced to ``infrequent telephone calls.''
The US government has known about high-level Haitian military involvement in drug trafficking since the mid-1980s, yet it has been ineffective in thwarting the flow of the estimated two to four tons of cocaine the DEA believes passes through Haiti on the way to Miami each month.
In the six years since the US government began working with the Haitian military's antinarcotics unit, only one military officer, Lt. Col. Jean-Claude Paul, has been indicted, despite what DEA sources say has been ample information implicating other top military leaders. Colonel Paul was poisoned and died soon after his extradition to the US became an issue.
Several analysts contend that the recent revelation that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paid several top Haitian military leaders ``modest amounts'' for political information helps explain at least some of the DEA's frustrations.
``It's clear the real value went to the Haitian side. They purchased immunity. What they were getting was a legitimating factor, a relationship with Washington,'' says Larry Birn, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal Washington-based think tank.
Supporters of the CIA have called this practice the legitimate development of crucial intelligence networks.
But a senior Senate aide says the situation is ``eerily, frighteningly similar'' to the events that led up to the 1989 US invasion of Panama to oust dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. General Noriega was also on the CIA's payroll when the organization had information linking him to drug trafficking. The CIA disavowed Noriega only after revelations about his illicit activities became public.
SEVERAL US lawmakers in both the House and Senate, including US Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, have called for intelligence committee investigations into the CIA's payments to the Haitian military leaders.
``More than ever, we need to know the relationship of our Embassy in Port-au-Prince with [Army chief Lt. Gen. Raoul] Cedras and the Haitian high command,'' Congressman Rangel says.
``Furthermore, the vicious attacks by the CIA against President Aristide in briefing members of Congress leave open a number of questions about the motivations for these actions,'' he says
DEA sources and other analysts say the Haitian military's drug trafficking is only a part of a larger-scale smuggling operation run by former and current military officers. The operation is reported to work in conjunction with former Tontons Macoutes, the private security force that reigned by terror during the Duvalier dictatorships, who are now believed to be responsible for the increase in political violence.
``During the last two years, this network has strengthened. Now it has weapons, money, a radio communications network, and the power to conduct political repression,'' says Patrick Elie, the National Coordinator for Antinarcotics Policy for the exiled Aristide government. ``This is what we must contend with when we go back.''