Haiti's Military May Dig In Heels to Keep Lucrative Drug Trade

Former Haitian military officer and port security guard tell Monitor of military's involvement in transhipments

A HAITIAN refugee sat in his New York apartment and rolled up his sleeves to show the scars from when he says he was dragged through the streets of his capital, Port-au-Prince, after being beaten by a major in the Haitian Army.

The young man's offense? Accidentally stumbling across a case of what appeared to be Barbancourt Rum on Feb. 14, 1991.

A soldier had been carrying the box out to the major's car from the secured area at Haiti's national seaport. The refugee, who then worked as a security guard for the National Port Authority, had asked to do a routine check of the contents. The soldier panicked, dropped the box and ran, revealing bottles full of a white, granular substance, presumed to be cocaine.

``The major then grabbed me. I was blindfolded and beaten, then thrown in jail for a month,'' says the refugee in an exclusive Monitor interview. The young man in his early 20s, whose dark eyes alternately convey fear and rage, fled Haiti in February 1992. Since then, he has been living in New York under an assumed name for fear of further reprisals.

The Haitian says he worked at the port from May 1990 to February 1992. He says he saw 12 top Haitian military leaders load contraband and what he believes was cocaine into their own vehicles from a ship named Maradona that docked four to five times a month.

His list includes Port-au-Prince Police Chief Lt. Col. Michel Francois, the man witnesses say is at the heart of the Haitian drug trade and in control of the marauding bands of armed gangs known as ``attaches,'' who are responsible for the recent increase in political violence in Haiti.

US antinarcotics officials have known about high-level Haitian military involvement in drug transhipments since the late 1980s, when convicted Colombian traffickers bragged, in sworn testimony, about using the Haitian International Airport as a ``parking lot.'' They also complain that there is plenty of information linking military officials to the drug trade, but little hard evidence.

Many analysts believe the military's desire to hold on to that illicit trade is one key reason it has dug in its heels to prevent the return of a civilian-led government. The negotiated terms require the resignations of the top military leader, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, and the police chief, Colonel Francois. DEA estimates drug traffic

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) estimates two to four tons of cocaine pass through Haiti each month with the blessings of some military leaders. Analysts believe they earn $100 million or more in bribes annually.

``If we'd really go into it, we'd indict them,'' says Roger Guevara, a Washington-based DEA information officer. ``But knowing somebody's up to something is one thing and being able to prove it in court is another.''

But as this reporter held interviews with former Haitian military officers, exiled Haitian government officials, and US drug enforcement officials - and reviewed sworn testimony from convicted members of the Colombian drug cartels and confidential documents from within the Haitian Army - a picture emerged of a corrupt military integrally linked with narcotics traffickers and a US government alternately uninterested and at odds over how to deal with the problem.

``The corruption and drug smuggling goes against the DEA, yet it's the military, the same people, the US government has always dealt with on political issues,'' says Patrick Elie, the National Coordinator for Antinarcotics Policy for the exiled government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. ``It's been quite difficult for the US government to realign its policy.''

The US government has worked cooperatively with the Haitian military in antinarcotics efforts since the late 1980s. The thrust has always been aimed at ousting the Colombian cartels that use the island as a transhipment point.

In early 1988, the Haitian government established the Center for Information and Coordination (CIC) with US government funding. It was supposed to collect intelligence and feed it to the Haitian Narcotics Bureau.

Until the September 1991 coup that ousted the democratically elected president, the arrangement appeared to work. In fiscal year 1988, the DEA seized more than three tons of cocaine shipped through Haiti. In 1989, seizures increased to almost four tons. In 1990, seizures dropped to two tons.

But in an exclusive interview with the Monitor, a former high-ranking Haitian military officer at the CIC, who now lives in exile in Miami, contends the cooperation at the highest levels of the military was merely a facade. The officer, who fled Haiti after his life was threatened, says the seized cocaine was routinely stolen by high-ranking officers. Sometimes flour was substituted for cocaine before it was destroyed. At other times, large quantities would simply disappear.

A confidential DEA report, written this fall, indicates the dimensions of the problem: ``Corruption within the antinarcotics services, which are staffed by the military at all levels, is substantial enough to hamper any significant drug investigations focused on dismantling Colombian organizations operating in Haiti.'' Military controls all access

Haitian military and police control the country's airports, waterways, and highways. Haitian military sources and analysts contend corrupt officers also keep an iron grip on the country's judicial and legislative systems, ensuring them far-reaching power in almost all aspects of Haitian society.

``It's one-stop shopping,'' says John Mattes, a Miami attorney who represents several clients connected with the Colombian drug cartels. One client is a Cuban-American, who is now cooperating with authorities through Mr. Mattes. He requested his name not be used because of the recent spate of killings in Haiti and Miami of opponents of Haiti's de facto military government.

The Cuban-American said that one of his crews had had engine trouble off the coast of Haiti during the mid-1980s. Their plane was forced to dump its cocaine load and make a precarious landing in Port-au-Prince. After inadvertently buzzing low over the presidential palace, the two pilots were arrested for bothering President Duvalier.

The Cuban-American testified that after he paid $30,000 to Fernando Burgos Martinez, a Colombian national living in Haiti, the two pilots were released within 24 hours.

Mr. Martinez, according to DEA sources, has been linked by informants to every major drug shipment to Haiti since 1987. A confidential Senate staff report also has identified Martinez as ``the principal Colombian who controls Haiti.''

A source inside the DEA expressed frustration over what he termed, ``a lack of initiative'' on the part of the US government in indicting Martinez. The source said Martinez routinely uses his home phone to transact business with other Colombian dealers. The source said both the US Embassy and the Haitian government were pressed for authorization to wiretap Martinez's phone, but neither responded.

Martinez, who professes his innocence, continues to live and operate openly in a lavish house in Petionville, a wealthy suburb overlooking Port-au-Prince.

Mattes and others say the Col-ombian cartels continue to use Haiti as a transhipment point because the Army continues to offer ``total access to all facilities, from jails to airstrips, to the peo-ple that handle the flight plans.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.