Drug Traffickers Find Haiti a Hospitable Port of Call
By LYDIA POLGREEN and TIM WEINER
CHEVALIER, Haiti - The riches that arrived in this tiny village came from the sea - not in the nets its fishermen haul from the sparkling waters but in an abandoned speedboat that washed up last year stocked with dozens of hard, cellophane-wrapped bricks of Colombian cocaine.
"Everyone else was grabbing it, so I took some," said a 23-year-old fisherman who identified himself as Vital. "I gave it to my father, and the men came from Port-au-Prince to buy it for a lot of money."
The cargo taught this village of brightly painted houses on Haiti's south coast what Haitian police and government officials have known for years: the drug trade is one of the few ways in Haiti to amass a fortune.
This chaotic, impoverished country has been a bustling crossroads for moving Colombian cocaine to the United States for at least 20 years. But since the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Feb. 29, investigators, diplomats and government officials here describe emerging evidence of a state so riddled with drug money that it touched even the presidential palace, through Mr. Aristide's chief of security.
What is still unanswered is whether those links reached Mr. Aristide himself. A senior Western diplomat who has been briefed on a federal investigation under way in Miami into drug ties in the Aristide government said an indictment of Mr. Aristide might be "a couple of months away."
The former president denies any corruption, but the accusations against Mr. Aristide represent the bottoming out of a long-ambivalent relationship with the United States.
The Clinton administration used force to usher Mr. Aristide back to power in 1994 after he was pushed out in a coup. This year, as Mr. Aristide faced a mounting rebellion in Haiti, the Bush administration provided him with a jet to leave. "We're glad to see him go," Vice President Dick Cheney said.
Mr. Aristide claimed to have been kidnapped, and his supporters and others say that the drug accusations are intended to intimidate the former president and discourage him from trying to reclaim his presidency by saying that he was illegally removed.
"It seems very much to be a politically driven enterprise," said Robert Maguire, director of programs in international affairs at Trinity College in Washington and an expert on Haiti. "Drug trafficking in Haiti has been around a very long time. So why now? I think they may be using this as leverage against him to marginalize his voice."
Professor Maguire said that the military junta that overthrew Mr. Aristide in 1991, including its leader, Raoul Cedras, faced similar accusations, but instead of prosecution got a comfortable exile in South America.
In any case, investigations into drug links in Haiti go back at least seven years, and the accusations against the former president provide the most vivid example yet of Haiti's growing importance as a drug link to the United States since Mexico cracked down on smugglers.
Both American officials and Aristide supporters assert that the rebel soldiers who helped push Mr. Aristide from power in February used drug profits to pay for their revolt.
So much drug money was at stake in the power struggle that culminated in Mr. Aristide's departure that Bruce Bagley, a professor at the University of Miami who has studied drug trafficking in Haiti, called the rebellion "basically a narco-coup."
"The battle was over who is going to control the drug trafficking and the profits of the drug trade," he said.
Today, diplomats worry that the corruption of drug money has so infected the country's fragile police force and justice system that it will now contaminate the interim government, particularly as rebels with links to the trafficking continue to jockey for influence here.
"Our biggest concern is the drug trafficking," the United States ambassador, James Foley, said in a speech to the Haitian Chamber of Commerce in Port-au-Prince last month.
"With the departure of one regime that maintained intimate relations with big drug traffickers," he added, "there will be an effort to rebuild the networks, including by trying to infiltrate and manipulate the police."
Since Mr. Aristide's ouster, American officials have begun tightening the noose on members of the former Aristide government and assert that drug money was "a cancer that infected every level of government," said a senior Western diplomat briefed on the criminal investigation.
One possible link to Mr. Aristide, investigators and experts say, is Oriel Jean, Mr. Aristide's chief of palace security, who was detained in Canada in March on immigration charges and then turned over to the American authorities, who claim jurisdiction over traffickers, including foreign nationals, trying to smuggle drugs into the United States.
Mr. Jean was charged in Miami with one count of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Miami now say he is likely to face a new indictment as part of a wider investigation into drug trafficking in Haiti.
An affidavit filed by the D.E.A., which was based on testimony by an informant and unsealed by a Florida judge last month, said Mr. Jean took a $50,000 payoff for each cocaine shipment arriving by plane in Haiti over the last three years. The cocaine was then "smuggled into the United States," the affidavit said.
Mr. Jean's lawyer, David Raben, said his client would plead not guilty to all charges.
Another central figure in the Miami investigation of Haiti's drug links is Beaudoin Ketant, a notorious Haitian trafficker who flaunted his wealth with a gaudy $8 million villa and flashy cars and who boasted of his connections to the government.
After years of intense pressure, Mr. Aristide's government, which American officials now say was lax in its antidrug cooperation, turned him over to American drug-enforcement officers last summer. Mr. Ketant, a crucial contact in Haiti for the major Colombian cocaine cartels, was featured on the television program "America's Most Wanted" in 2001.
At his sentencing on Feb. 25, four days before Mr. Aristide fled Haiti, he received a 27-year sentence for shipping more than 30 tons of Colombian cocaine to the United States. Mr. Ketant said in open court that he had personally paid Mr. Aristide millions of dollars in bribes and that this money bought protection for cocaine shipments passing through Haiti.
"The man is a drug lord," he told Judge Federico A. Moreno of the United States District Court. "He controlled the drug trade in Haiti. He turned the country into a narco-country."
The judge told Mr. Ketant: "I'm not sentencing President Aristide. He hasn't been charged."
Mr. Ketant replied: "Not yet, your honor. You will be seeing him pretty soon."
Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer who represents Mr. Aristide, denied the accusations, saying, "They have no evidence or any proof or anything that will indicate Aristide was involved in drug trafficking because he wasn't."
He said the former government did its best to help American officials fight the drug trade even as the United States and other countries choked off support to Haiti's police force.
American officials say that at least 80 tons of cocaine was shipped through Haiti in the Aristide years, and drug enforcement officials and diplomats estimate that 8 percent of the cocaine shipped from Colombia to the United States still flows through Haiti.
The State Department, based on information gleaned in drug investigations, estimates that drug payoffs in Haiti - "transit fees" paid by Colombian traffickers to corrupt officials - amount to about $1,500 a pound. State Department officials say drug payoffs to Haitian officials during Mr. Aristide's last three years in power amounted to about $250 million.
Diplomats and experts say the rebels who helped oust Mr. Aristide were motivated in part by a desire to seize control of those payoffs. At least two leaders of the revolt against Mr. Aristide are suspected by the United States of trafficking.
Guy Philippe, the leader of the revolt, was investigated by American and Haitian officials for drug trafficking before he took refuge in the Dominican Republic in 2000, a senior Western diplomat said.
Mr. Philippe, who says he received American counternarcotics training in Ecuador in the early 1990's, denies the accusations. A former police official, he remains in Haiti and is trying to get hundreds of his soldiers appointed to Haiti's police force. He is also hinting that he may seek elected office next year.
"I am completely clean," he said in an interview. "I never touched drugs. People who say that are just envious of my popularity."
Meanwhile, trafficking continues, especially in areas controlled by rebels. In March, officials in Miami found 220 pounds of cocaine on a Bolivian freighter that had left the rebel-held city of Gonaïves four days earlier. Weeks later, American officials seized 130 pounds of cocaine on a Panamanian freighter that had arrived from Cap Haitien.
Officials of the interim government say they are committed to fighting drug runners, but the country's exhausted treasury has no money for more police or equipment, though this week the United States and other countries began committing aid dollars to the struggling appointed government.
Jean-Claude Jean, the newly appointed official who is responsible for halting drug trafficking, said his department had just 51 officers and little equipment. He bought a laptop computer with his own money to create the country's first database of suspected traffickers. He held this job once before, in 2002, but after nine months was suddenly transferred to a desk job.
"If you are fighting drug traffickers and corruption, they wouldn't tell you not to do your job, they would just transfer you," he said. "Everyone knew who was a drug dealer - we all knew Ketant was a trafficker. But if we wanted to arrest him we would have been killed."
In Port Salut, Mr. Aristide's hometown, about 15 miles from here on Haiti's southern coast, a police inspector, Jean Octave, said his officers were aware of a drug trafficking operation at a grassy airstrip in the city but were helpless to stop it.
"We are just six men," he said. "We have no cars, no motorcycles, no bulletproof vests, no way to keep records. We would like to fight it, but we cannot."
Kathie Klarreich contributed reporting from Miami for this article.