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Jamaica Struggles With Cocaine

February 10, 2000

YALLAHS, Jamaica (AP) _ Gordon, a villager whose family has been fishing the waters off Jamaica’s southeastern coast for generations, needed a little extra cash. So one day last year, another fisherman introduced him to a local cocaine smuggler.

Gordon became a bit player in a growth industry. In his 18-foot-long boat, he makes regular pickups at prearranged spots a few miles offshore. Occasionally he’s called at the last minute to pluck floating packets from the sea when they are jettisoned by traffickers spotted by U.S. and Jamaican coast guard patrols.

It is dangerous work _ but very tempting in a land where times are hard and hopes are scant.

``Fishing can’t send my kids to school. Fishing can’t buy a new motor for my boat,″ said Gordon, who only gave his first name.

Smuggling cocaine more than doubled his income, Gordon said, sipping rum at a seaside bar and ruminating upon the $15,000, 45-horsepower Yamaha engine that now graces his boat.

Gordon, 38, refused to give his last name for fear of the law, but he spoke openly about his activities. While locals refused to discuss Gordon specifically, they confirmed that cocaine smuggling by fishermen is widespread.

``I hear it happens all up and down the coast,″ said Reddy Gilson, 32. ``This kind of thing is hard to keep secret. One man shows up with money, new shoes, new clothes, more money than he had before, and everyone knows where he got it from.″

John Tom, 24, who steams fish on the roadside, said: ``We all know what’s going on. You can’t call the police and tell them what you know. If they see you talking to a police officer they’ll come and ... kill you and your family.″

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, manager of the Barbados-based U.N. program to fight drugs in the Caribbean, said the phenomenon is rather new in Jamaica.

``Up to two or three years ago, the impression was that Jamaica’s major problem was marijuana,″ he said.

Colombian traffickers began routing more shipments through Jamaica _ as well as Haiti _ as U.S. authorities clamped down on smuggling through their Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico and as enforcement improved in the Dominican Republic, Lemahieu said.

Located about halfway between Colombia and Florida and offering a well-established network of gangs as allies, Jamaica is an attractive alternate transit point.

``Where we used to see maybe one boatload of cocaine a week, we’re now seeing three to four boatloads of cocaine, each weighing″ 800 to 1,800 pounds, said Beres Spence, head of Jamaica’s police narcotics division. ``Traffickers can access every inch of our shoreline, but it would be impossible for us to cover every inch.″

Spence and foreign analysts estimate that, at most, a fifth of the cocaine passing through Jamaica is intercepted. A record 5,500 pounds was seized last year, more than double the amount of the year before. While the increase might reflect better detection, it also suggests a rise in trafficking.

Most of the cocaine is shipped on slim vessels outfitted with powerful engines that can travel from the northern coast of Colombia to Jamaica in about a day.

Only a small amount of the cocaine is consumed by the local market, where a kilogram fetches $6,000. Most is smuggled to the United States, where the same amount sells for $20,000.

Most smugglers stockpile large shipments here with the help of people like Gordon, then send smaller deliveries north on airline flights, cruise ships, or smaller boats.

With unemployment running officially at 15 percent _ and in reality much higher _ finding ``mules″ to carry the drugs is easy. Over a thousand Jamaicans _ out of a population of 2.6 million _ were arrested for possession of cocaine during the last two years, and most were also charged with attempting to export the drug, police say.

The extent of Jamaica’s role is summed up by one statistic: according to U.S. Customs, 64 percent of those arrested for cocaine smuggling at U.S. airports between October 1998 and September 1999 were coming from Jamaica, though not all were Jamaican.

Spence said the Air Jamaica hub in Montego Bay, with flights going to major cities in Europe and North American, was a ``hub for drug smuggling.″

American officials cite the 1998 ``shiprider agreement″ allowing U.S. ships and airplanes to chase smugglers into Jamaican waters and airspace as a sign that officials here are serious. But corruption hampers the efforts, says the U.S. State Department.

``Corruption, especially among members of the security and law enforcement forces,″ remains a serious problem, said the department’s most recent report on Jamaica, published in April 1998.

Many of Kingston’s gangs were created in the 1970s to fight turf wars on behalf of political parties. The drug business has helped make them independent, but they retain a loose affiliation with politicians that, Lemahieu suggested, might hamper interdiction.

``The Jamaican politicians created a Frankenstein and they have not controlled it,″ Lemahieu said. ``They are trying to get rid of the ties. How far they will succeed only the future will tell.″

Yet while smuggling activities are up, cocaine use has not flourished among Jamaicans _ partly because the popular, marijuana-consuming Rastafarians despise the drug. ``It’s never been accepted the way marijuana has,″ said Winston Mendes-Davidson, head of Jamaica’s Medical Association.

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