U.S. looking at Aristide's possible role in drug trade
Deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is now the subject of a U.S. drug investigation, law enforcement sources say, and his record is also under scrutiny in Haiti.
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ
U.S. prosecutors in Miami are investigating whether former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide pocketed millions of dollars from drug traffickers who moved tons of cocaine through the poor nation, federal sources familiar with the inquiry said Friday.
''It's in the early stages,'' one law enforcement source told The Herald. ``It's a bit premature to say we've got anything yet. But you're not wrong if you say that's where we're going.''
Several officials in South Florida and Washington also said investigators have been briefed on reports that relatives of Aristide and his wife, Mildred, hold nearly $250 million in European banks. The officials added, however, that there is no indication yet whether the funds actually exist.
Haitian Justice Minister Bernard Gousse meanwhile said Friday he will establish a commission next week to investigate allegations against Aristide -- everything from misuse of government funds to human-rights abuses.
''It will look at what he was up to during his presidency, and the scope will be very broad,'' Gousse told The Herald.
Ira Kurzban, Aristide's Miami lawyer, attributed the probe to politics: ``After kidnapping President Aristide, the Bush administration is not content to simply end democracy in Haiti -- they need to politically assassinate Aristide.''
Spokesmen for the U.S. attorney's office and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami, and the Justice Department in Washington, declined to comment on the investigation, first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Several of the South Florida sources said U.S. officials in Washington, who had refused to support a criminal case against Aristide when he was still president, changed their tune in recent weeks.
The political will shifted, they said, after Aristide started alleging that U.S. officials forced him to resign and go into exile. Washington has denied the accusations.
U.S. officials have long complained that Aristide was at least turning a blind eye to drug traffickers who used Haiti to transship Colombian cocaine to U.S. streets.
Ironically, his increased cooperation with DEA and U.S. Embassy personnel in the waning months of his tenure greatly accelerated the case now being built against him.
The Herald has learned that the Aristide government expelled to the United States four prominent drug trafficking suspects between June and October -- three of whom have pleaded guilty and are now cooperating with the DEA in the investigation against the former president.
Traffickers such as Beaudoin ''Jacques'' Ketant, under a 1997 indictment in Miami accusing him of moving 15 tons of cocaine through Haiti, had avoided deportation earlier because Haitian law enforcement and the judiciary were easily corrupted.
WENT TOO FAR
But last May, Ketant's thugs allegedly roughed up an administrator at the Union School in Port-au-Prince. Livid U.S. Embassy officials, whose children attended the school along with one of Ketant's children, demanded that Aristide give him up.
Believing he was being summoned to a meeting at the presidential palace, Ketant was taken by Haitian police on June 18 to waiting DEA agents who flew him to South Florida.
He has since told U.S. officials that he paid Aristide and the head of his palace security, Oriel Jean, up to $500,000 a month to let him land small planes loaded with cocaine on National Route 9, according to sources familiar with the case. Ketant also claims to have made massive payoffs to Aristide's political party and to one of his social-work foundations.
Over the three months after Ketant's expulsion to the United States, DEA operatives and embassy personnel in Haiti pushed Aristide to expel three other trafficking suspects: Eliobert Jasme, Carlos Ovalle and Eddy Aurelien.
Ovalle, a Colombian who lived in Haiti for more than a decade and acted as the transshipment coordinator, was expelled in September.
Aurelien, a former Miami resident and music promoter charged with distributing crack cocaine, turned up in Haiti shortly after he skipped bond in 1997. Aurelien was returned in handcuffs in August.
Ovalle and Aurelien immediately pleaded guilty and started giving extensive briefings to federal prosecutors and DEA and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents. Jasme, who was brought to the United States in September, is not cooperating.
The investigation into Aristide's possible links to traffickers accelerated last month when Oriel Jean was detained in Canada on a U.S. drug-trafficking charge. Jean had been booted as chief of security in June, within days of Ketant's expulsion.
U.S. prosecutors and agents are leaning on Jean to cooperate, the law enforcement sources said. But Jean's Miami attorney, David Raben, said Friday his client intends to fight the charges vigorously.
The sources acknowledged that they may have trouble using several of the traffickers -- plus an unnamed Haitian policeman who informed on Jean -- as witnesses against Aristide because they may also have been working for the CIA.
''Some of these guys will have been working for the guys whose initials we shall not speak,'' one of the sources said. ``But it's so early in this, we will have to see.''
Herald staff writers Jacqueline Charles, Juan O. Tamayo and Nancy San Martin contributed to this report.