Congressional hearings show drugs grip Central America

Four days of hearings on Latin American drug ties have highlighted a crucial point: that the involvement of government officials in drug trafficking has not been limited to Panama. The various witnesses, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics, and international operations, have painted a picture of an entire region threatened and used by powerful drug cartels. Billions of dollars involved in the trade, fueled by American demand have made officials from countries like Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, and the Bahamas ripe for corruption.

United States government policy in the region came in for heavy criticism as well. The US has ``lost the war to the Medell'in drug cartel,'' said Ramon Milian Rodriguez, a convicted money-launderer who worked for the cartel in Miami. The Colombian-based operation is believed responsible for most of the cocaine that reaches the US.

Francis McNeil, former US ambassador to Costa Rica, said that the US government's ``obsession with Nicaragua overwhelmed our national interest in getting at the prosecution of drug trafficking.''

Other witnesses described a lack of coordination among the various agencies involved in fighting drugs. One clash came over the case of Mark Palmer. First, he testified, he was a drug smuggler. Then he aided the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the Customs Department as an undercover drug informant. Then he was hired by the State Department to aid contra resupply efforts, during which time he also did undercover drug work for the US.

In 1986, the FBI investigated Mr. Palmer's drug background and indicted him on drug charges. But, he said, charges were dropped because of his undercover work, which the FBI didn't know about.

Other highlights from the congressional hearings this week:

Jos'e Blandon, a former aide to Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, testified that he has proof of US government authorities' involvement in drugs in Central America. When asked if General Noriega has the proof he says he does, Blandon said yes.

Miami businessman Osvaldo Quintana testified that he helped smuggle over 900 pounds of cocaine into the US from a Haiti ranch at the request of Haitian Col. Jean-Claude Paul.

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