Lack of equipment, crews hobbles Haiti's coast guard
BY MARIKA LYNCH
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- One by one, the weary, would-be U.S. immigrants file onto the Coast Guard dock here, unwillingly returned to their homeland.
Haitian Coast Guard Cmdr. Leon Charles consoles them with a touch,
and videotapes them for posterity. But that's about as close as any Haitian
guardsman gets to migrants.
Since 1995, Charles' crews have stopped just two Florida-bound boats -- and only because the guard bumped into them in the bay off Port-au-Prince.
''Coincidence,'' Charles said.
With three aging cruisers and a skimpy fuel budget, the Haitian
Coast Guard has three hours a day to patrol the country's 1,100-mile coast.
The lack of
equipment and crews thwarts any serious effort to stop illegal migration or the growing drug trade.
The northern and southern coasts have become a playground for
human and drug smugglers, and the nation is a pit stop for about 15 percent
America's cocaine supply, U.S. officials say. Yet the Haitian Coast Guard hasn't been able to curb either.
The Haitian guard hasn't had a major drug bust since 1998, and has seized just 2,000 kilos of cocaine in the past five years.
''Not much,'' the commander concedes.
The Haitian Guard is a symbolic force without the substance to
fulfill its mission, said Ivelaw Griffith, a Florida International University
expert on Caribbean security.
''What's worse, the bad guys know they don't have the capability and exploit it,'' Griffin said.
In fairness though, no Caribbean nation has a Coast Guard equipped to efficiently protect its coasts, he added.
That leaves the United States, which beefed up ocean patrols recently after more than 200 Haitians got within swimming distance of Key Biscayne.
The U.S. Coast Guard's relationship with its Haitian counterpart
is ''very close,'' Judith Trunzo, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince,
U.S. patrols can and do enter Haitian waters to chase suspected drug dealers, though a Haitian guardsman must be aboard. And when the United States
repatriates would-be immigrants, the local guard helps by ferrying them in from the cutters.
At first, the Haitian corps had 122 members, but the ranks shriveled after half were sent to Miami for training. Only 17 returned to Haiti, Charles said.
Now all training is local.
''We can't afford losing more guys,'' Charles said. ``They won't come back.''
The Guard is trying to boost its fleet. Next year, the country's
second base will open in the northern city of Cap Haitien, thanks to $500,000
from the U.S. government. Right now the Coast Guard makes it up to the north coast about once a month.
That's where the Key Biscayne-bound left from. The Haitian force
didn't know about its voyage until the U.S. Coast Guard called and said
the boat had
been spotted 20 miles from the Florida coast.
Getting to Cap Haitien from the Port-au-Prince base is now a
task. The Coast Guard's 40-foot cruisers, refurbished 1980s era Haitian
navy boats, don't
have toilets or beds, making long stays uncomfortable. Then there's the fuel budget, a paltry 2,000 gallons of diesel a month, or enough for 100 hours on
So mostly, the sailors patrol the bay off the capital, boarding boats to make sure they have the required life vests, and rescuing sinking fishermen.