When Marines Land With No Welcome Mat

A Caribbean island lived off smuggling for decades. When the US built a patrol station, locals wondered why

In 72 years on the tiny Caribbean island of Petite Martinique, Theodora King had never seen a policeman on patrol.

Her fellow villagers, estimated liberally at 800, will tell you that there's no need - no one on the island, part of Grenada, has ever been arrested for a serious crime.

"Everyone lives peacefully on this sweet little island," Ms. King says. "Of course, we always have our little misunderstandings. We work them out ourselves."

That was before the United States gave the island a brand new police and coast guard station, a security gift built by the US Marines that has ironically left some Petite Martiniquers fearful for their future.

A battalion of 100 marines landed in Petite Martinique this spring as part of CARIB '97, an annual US training exercises that often simultaneously provide aid to the host Caribbean nations. Although drug interdiction is not put forward as the chief purpose of the base, the facility fills a security gap on Grenada's northern flank.

Perched on a promontory near the village center, the base has a projected 12-person crew that will be able to keep an eye on boats plying the Grenadines. That's where boats from Petite Martinique pass, doing what they have done for generations. The islanders call it "barter trade." The Grenadian government calls it smuggling.

Unabashedly, residents say the island economy depends on trading in contraband. It always has, says Michael Caesar, de facto village leader. Mr. Caesar explains that most of the islanders are fishermen. They sell their catches to relatives with larger boats, who take the fish north to Martinique. There, they sell the fish and fill their empty hulls with beer, cigarettes, furniture, and appliances - anything they can trade on the trip home. Dodging hefty Grenadian duties yields a comfortable living for Petite Martiniquers.

"From before my father's days, contraband was a normal thing," Caesar says. "In the old days, [British] colonial authorities looked the other way, because it was the people's only means of survival. The people who are doing these things don't see it as illegal."

Grenadian Prime Minister Keith Mitchell does, however. His cash-strapped treasury wants the unpaid tariff revenues. He has also made interdiction of illegal drugs his No. 1 priority.

But islanders say their boats are drug-free. If someone on the island was smuggling illegal drugs, "everyone would know," says islander Brian Clement. "We don't allow those kinds of things."

Many worry their trade in contraband could be ensnared in the regional fervor to stop drug smuggling. Many islanders say the new coast guard station spells the end of the good life on Petite Martinique. If the contraband trade is stopped, "How would we make a living here?" asks Caesar. "We have no agriculture, no industry, and there is no room on the island for those things."

Petite Martinique, Grenada's northernmost island, is a spit of overgrown rock less than one square mile. At its heart is the stone Roman Catholic church and elementary school. There's one paved road, traversed by the island's two pickup trucks and one car. The vehicles arrived about four years ago, electricity in 1988.

The new base was an unwelcome surprise. Villagers say they were not consulted, and a dearth of information from the US and Grenadian governments unleashed a flood of rumors - that the marines were rapists, that the new facility was a US base or secret satellite-tracking station. The rumors fueled one arson in September. Villagers staged noisy but peaceful demonstrations when the marines landed in April and again when the prime minister visited to break ground. Some villagers said the landing recalled images of the 1983 US military invasion of Grenada.

On the eve of the marines' departure June 24, some Petite Martiniquers have grown to accept, at least in part, their unwelcome gift, says Matilda Bethel. "We can live with a police station, it won't stop the trade. We'll just have to pay some duties. It's not going to be so different after all."

Others, like Caesar, remain pensive and bitter about the whole affair. "What will happen to us if the coast guard runs us down?" Caesar asks.

One possible solution, Caesar says, would be a customs office on the island to collect tariffs that were reduced to more reasonable levels for Petite Martinique traders. With no way to pay the taxes on the island now, he says, any trader who puts in before declaring his cargo elsewhere could be arrested for smuggling. Though almost everyone on Petite Martinique would rather the marines had not built the station, tensions cooled over the weeks as islanders warmed up to the marines' presence.

"It was the marines on the ground that turned this thing around," Dennis Carter, US Charge d'Affairs for Grenada, says.

On the eve of a party the island threw for the marines to thank them for the basketball court and school and clinic renovations they contributed to the village, Capt. Greg Lemons, battalion commander, mused that he didn't see any reason to fear the trade would whither. "Especially since some of the No. 1 users [of contraband] are the police and coast guard officers. The trade continues just like it did before. I don't think it will change."

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