Bahamas: an island paradise for drug traffickers

For three days tempers inside the British-style Parliament flared almost as high as the 90-degree temperatures baking pedestrians in the square outside. At the top of the agenda: crime -- and the degree to which violence and corruption have taken over these once peaceful and law-abiding islands.

"What we have", said Attorney General Paul L. Adderley, "is an extremely serious national problem. People at all levels have become engaged in a wide cross section of criminal and corrupt activities that threaten to destroy our society."

While high unemployment and the election violence of 1968 and 1972 may be partially responsible for the breakdown in law and order, the main factor is the multibillion-dollar drug trade, which has encouraged crime and corruption.

In the past two years Bahamian law-enforcement authorities say they have confiscated nearly $800 million worth of drugs in the islands. That figure, however, is considered to be just a fraction of the marijuana, cocaine, and methaqualone pills (called "quaaludes" in the streets) being siphoned from Latin America to the United States.

This spring brought one of the biggest South American drug harvests in memory , so officials believe Bahamian drug traffic will soar this year.

The same inducements that made the Bahamas so successful as a tourism and banking center have proven equally attractive to the drug merchants.

Strung like a chain southward from the Florida coast to Cuba, the 700 islands and cays straddle some of the Western Hemisphere's most important shipping lanes.

Secluded coves and beaches sprinkled across 100,000 square miles of water have made it relatively easy to hide the contraband on its journey northwand from Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Until a dozen years ago, drug traders were foreigners, most of them Americans. But more and more Bahamians are being enticed into the business by almost-sure profits. Last year 64 percent of the 1,024 persons charged with drug offenses were Bahamians.

Many are never caught, largely because their activities are confined to the outlying islands where police surveillance is minimal.

The Bahamians are drug-traffic middlemen -- unloading, transporting, and stashing the bales of marijuana brought in by ship or plane across the Caribbean to await pickup for the final leg of the trip. They also light the clandestine airstrips and refuel the aircraft used by the smugglers.

For providing a couple of drums of aviation fuel at the right place at the right time, an islander can make as much as $10,000 -- the yearly salary earned by a Bahamian police officer after 10 years on the force.

"The temptation for quick money exerts tremendous pressure, especially when your neighbors are getting rich overnight," says former Chief Magistrate Emmanuel Osadebay, who in his 10 years on the bench dealth with hundreds of drug cases.

But most of those sucked into the trade are young and otherwise unemployed.

Money and intimidation make it possible to beat the law. Police investigating drug activity in the islands have found local residents not only antagonistic but obstructive. Those who do not help the authorities run the risk of retaliation.

Tainted cash flowing in from drugs smuggling has permeated every sector of the economy. In the Outer Islands drug money has become the mainstay of many settlements blighted by government neglect.

The story is much the same in Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, where many new commercial ventures funded by drug money are changing the face of the inner city.

Retailers privately admit that cash purchases of electronic equipment, cars, and high-powered boats costing thousands of dollars are routinely paid for with

Among those who have benefited most from the business are the dozen or so Bahamian lawyers hired regularly by drug defendants. Legal fees for a single court appearance can range from $20,000 to $80,000.

Bail bonds sometimes run as high as $1 million, but defendants usually have no trouble raising the money.

Most of those charged with drug offenses prefer to post bail and skip the country rather than face lengthy jail terms. Since 1973 annual fines and forfeitures accruing to the government from drug cases have tripled -- to $1.5 million.

Bahamian drug laws were amended last year to stiffen the penalties for drug suppliers. Fines now run as high as $200,000 and/or 10 years imprisonment.

The changes also provide for forfeiture of any money, aircraft, vessels, or whatever else may have been used in connection with the offense. Nearly 100 boats and planes and scores of automatic weapons have been seized in the past two years.

The attorney general has complained, however, about the degree of court leniency toward drug offenders. He says it is frustrating police efforts.

Mr. Adderley told Parliament he was also aware of successful attempts to bribe juries and to have drug cases withdrawn before they could come to court. "One of the most corrupting influences on the total system," he said, "is the amount of money in the hands of the drug traffickers."

The social effects of the trade have proven even more destructive. The use of marijuana, methaqualone, and cocaine is widespread, particularly in the schools, where children as young as seven years have been hospitalized with drug-induced psychoses.

Medical authorities say drug abuse is the biggest health problem facing the country today, outweighing alcohol consumption, which the say is the third highest per capita in the world.

Police see a direct link between drugs and the rapid escalation in violent crimes. In the past two years at least two dozen people have been killed and many more than that number injured in drug-related incidents.

Robberies have more than doubled since 1977. Of the 692 such crimes last year, 70 percent involved the use of weapon. The picture is much the same for other criminal activity. As the latest police annual report notes: "Crime is at an all-time high in the Bahamas."

In the Outer Islands, once-peaceful communities have begun to resemble the cowboy towns of the old American West. Shoot-outs are frequent between Americans and Bahamians attempting to steal "grass" caches to sell stateside.

Over the past year a growing number of local fishermen and visiting yachtsmen have reported being fired on from shore or boarded by unidentified Bahamians looking for drugs.

Persons close to the scene point out that many young Out Islanders who might otherwise have gone into the fishing industry "prefer to fish for drugs."

Bahamian police admit that with a population of less than 215,000, the Bahamas lacks both the human and financial resources to control the mammoth drug problem in the islands.

The present force of some 1,218 men and women is 13 percent below its established strength in 1973, although the crime rate has doubled since then. It is estimated that at least 500 more recruits are needed to deal with the current crime level.

In addition, communications equipment, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and a variety of fast patrol boats are required if local law-enforcement agencies are to have a fighting chance against the sophisticated equipment used by the smugglers.

When all Illinois legislator vacationing in the Bahamas found a dead man on a drifting boat last year, Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling estimated his government needs $25 million worth of helicopters and other equipment to shut off the flow of narcotics -- but others say it is difficult to tell what amount would do the job.Some US officials say almost all that can be done by the Bahamas is being done, and that the Bahamas and the US are working together to fullest extent possible. But Mr. Pindling believes the US should step up its efforts; he blames US drug traffickers and users for growth of the trade.

On the other hand the Bahamian government has also come in for criticism. Widespread allegations persist that major drug traffickers have been able to operate freely in the Bahamas under the protection of influential Bahamians with government connections.

Although no concrete evidence has been produced to date to support the claims , they have intensified since the crime and corruption issue was raised in Parliament.

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