The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 08, 2004

Drug shipments slip easily across unguarded borders

Drugs and related crime are increasing in Guyana, a tiny South American nation of 700,000 people.

  Knight Ridder News Service

  LETHEM, Guyana - The Takatu River is so slender a border between Guyana and Brazil that speedboat taxis skim across it in a minute. In the dry season, villagers ford it by jeep or even on foot.

  At Lethem, the official gateway into Guyana's southwest, there is no checkpoint. Only a medicated sponge on the riverbank, which visitors from Brazil must step on to ward against foot-and-mouth disease, marks it as an international crossing.

  For decades, garden-variety contraband has flowed across Guyana's largely unpatrolled borders. Now, with crackdowns elsewhere, the remote regions of this nation of 700,000 have become part of the hidden highway for Latin American drug smuggling.


  Cocaine destined for the United States is increasingly passing through this swatch of rain forest and sugar-cane fields -- a mostly untouched paradise conjured as the mythical ''El Dorado'' by European explorers -- on its way from Colombia. This deadly black market threatens finally to ruin a place independent only 38 years and already broken by poverty, racial tension, rigged elections and soul-sapping emigration.

  ''There is believed to be significant drug trafficking through Guyana,'' said Daniel Daley, a U.S. Embassy official in the capital, Georgetown. ''As interdiction in Venezuela and Colombia have effect, the traffic in Guyana is likely to increase unless steps are taken to prevent that.'' A U.S. government report on the global drug trade in 2003 described Guyana as ``a prime target for narcotics traffickers.''

  Several recent cases show how the country -- with its slack border controls, rampant corruption and far-flung diaspora -- is now a transit area for drug smuggling.

  In November, U.S. law-enforcement arrested cargo and baggage handlers at New York and Miami airports who had, over a year, unloaded tens of millions of dollars of drugs outside the eye of surveillance cameras. More than 880 pounds of cocaine had arrived on flights from Guyana and Jamaica in luggage and cargo boxes and under ice in a plane's galley.


  In May, a former Miss Guyana was arrested at a Toronto airport with $1 million of cocaine in bottles of lotion and in the false sides of her suitcase. And Guyanese ships bearing lumber also carried $13 million of cocaine to England in May.

  Cocaine seizures at Guyana's main airport grew six times to 500 pounds in 2003. About 200 couriers, some with U.S. passports, have been arrested there since 2002. Security workers now shake bottles of the country's prized El Dorado rum because passengers have dissolved cocaine in it. Others have tried to smuggle taco-like rotis stuffed with the drug.

  ''We feel they're not the real players,'' said Leon Trim, the country's anticrime chief. ``We feel they're just fetching the drugs. Most of the big guys, we haven't really
  touched on them.''


  The only case ever brought against a suspected drug lord was dismissed by Guyana's highest court in 1996.

  Trim said prosecutors had presented only part of incriminating wiretaps from Canadian authorities. The evidence against the alleged kingpin, the owner of a
  department-store chain, has since disappeared.

  In its journey through Guyana, cocaine has corrupted government officials and bankrolled a paramilitary squad responsible for vigilante killings. It has also introduced Uzi submachine guns -- and a climate of fear. ''We're seeing more and more drug defendants walking away, because witnesses are not turning up,'' said Steve Crossman, deputy British high commissioner. ``You have to ask why?''

  Guyana's Stabroek News won't investigate the alleged nexus of drugs, militias and government corruption. ''No way,'' said publisher David de Caires. ``It's too

  The deputy director of the antidrug unit was riddled with bullets as he stopped to buy a newspaper on his way to work in 2002. Last year, 200 people, including drug agents, police and couriers, were slain.

  ''The number of killings is alarming,'' said human-rights activist Mike McCormack. ``The failure to arrest anyone is a little beyond belief.''

  Race divides in almost every way in this former British colony, where sugar was king and slaves from Africa and bonded laborers from India were imported to grow it. Since then, these two main ethnic groups have been locked in a seesaw battle for power. Today, Indians run the ruling party; Africans control the army and the police.

  Traffickers seem to have exploited that rift. Guyanese whisper that a ''phantom army'' outfitted by drug lords is responsible for many of the killings. They also say the squad serves the government, killing criminals the police and army won't.