The freighter was anchored just off Chubb Cay in the northern Bahamas when it was spotted by a Bahamian Defense Force cutter in the predawn hours. There was no mistaking its cargo. From bow to stern the 150-foot Colombian-registered Irma was stacked with 2,000 bales of marijuana.
It was the largest drug haul made by the force since its establishment four years ago.
Bahamian police and defense officials last year seized 900 pounds of cocaine and 450,000 pounds of marijuana with a combined street value of nearly $1 billion, but authorities say that represents only 5 to 10 percent of the drugs passing through these islands from South America.
Drug smuggling has, in fact, become this country's newest growth industry, and its impact is being felt throughout the economy. According to the US State Department, the Bahamas has become a major transshipment point for cocaine and marijuana destined for the United States.
Ten years ago participation in the trade was confined exclusively to foreigners. Today roughly half the drug arrests are of Bahamians. Many of the business and property purchases made by Bahamians on Grand Bahama Island within the past two years have allegedly been financed from the sale of drugs.
In November a prominent Bahamian businessman from Freeport, Grand Bahama, was charged in San Antonio with conspiring to smuggle drugs into the US worth an estimated $1 billion.
In the more remote islands where money and jobs are scarce, drugrunning has become the principal source of income for many families.
The government itself profited by more than $1 million last year from fines and forfeited bail in drug-related cases. Bahamian lawyers also profited from the large fees paid by drug defendants, most of whom run out before they can be brought to trial.
A recent business survey by the Bahamas Financial Digest, a monthly newsletter, disclosed that cash payment in American $100 bills for cars, boats, and other high-priced items is now common in Nassau.
Like poaching, the drug traffic has thrived largely because of the difficulty in policing the 100,000 square miles of water and 700 islands and cays that make up the Bahamian archipelago.
Brought in by sea and air, the drugs are stashed on isolated cays or near remote airstrips for later pickup and delivery to south florida.
Ironically, the smugglers have been aided by the construction of new airfields intended to encourage tourism in the outer islands.
In the past, Bahamian police and US authorities have cooperated closely in tracking down drug traffickers. Recently, however, there have been allegations by Florida drug enforcement officials of drug ties by persons close to the government of Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling.
Undercover agents, operating on Bimini without the knowledge of Bahamian authorities, have claimed that the island, 60 miles east of Miami, is being used as a base for one of the biggest drug-smuggling operations in this part of the world. And local officials, they charge, are getting payoffs of over a quarter of a million dollars to look the other way. Two raids by Bahamian police within the past four months tend to support the claim of a sophisticated drug ring on the island.
Similar allegations have been made about Norman's Cay, whose new owner turned out to be a convicted drug dealer from Colombia.
Despite a police raid several months ago, the cay is said to be still operating as a drug center under the protection of certain well- placed persons. The government has refused to comment on the charges.
Although he admits knowing some of those involved in the trade, Prime Minister Pindling has warned repeatedly that Bahamians trying to get rich quick by helping drug traffickers will get themselves killed.
Police files show a definite increase in violent crimes associated with drug smuggling. In the past three years a half dozen policemen have been shot, one of them fatally, in confrontations with smugglers.
Late last year the government announced a tough new policy intended to sweep the islands clean of drug traffickers and keep them clean.
Patrols by the Defense Force will be stepped up, and the badly undermanned police force brought to full strength. Also, new legislation will give the government greater control over the use and disposition of private marinas and airstrips in the islands and increase the penalty for drug offenses.
These measures, however, are likely to have only limited success so long as Bahamians are willing to cooperate with the smugglers.
Drug money has become such an intrinsic part of the Bahamian economy and involves so many people at all levels that to stifle the trade may be virtually impossible.