Before being sentenced to 27 years in prison and fined $30 million, a convicted drug trafficker tells the judge he had help: from his close friend, the Haitian president.
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ
One of Haiti's most flamboyant drug traffickers said Wednesday in a Miami federal courtroom that he couldn't have thrived without paying millions in bribes to his close friend, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
For 20 minutes, Beaudoin ''Jacques'' Ketant spewed a series of unsubstantiated accusations against the embattled Haitian leader. When he finished, U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno sentenced him to 27 years in prison and hit him with $30 million in fines and forfeitures.
Ketant -- who was indicted in 1997 but continued to live openly in a posh Port-au-Prince mansion until June -- admitted to moving more than 30 tons of cocaine between Colombia and the United States over a 12-year period. He said he had help.
Aristide ''is a drug lord. He controlled the drug trade in Haiti,'' said Ketant, 42. ``He turned the country into a narco-country.''
Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, general counsel to the Haitian government and an advisor to Aristide, said later that Ketant's accusations were garbage.
''This is just another piece of the effort to politically assassinate President Aristide before the U.S.-directed military coup physically eliminates him,'' Kurzban said.
''Any reasonable person looking at this confession of a drug dealer . . . knows that it smells awful,'' Kurzban continued. ``Where is the proof? Where are the pictures? Where are the tapes? Where is the evidence?''
Federal prosecutors declined to comment afterward, but the allegations weren't anything they hadn't heard. Ketant has been offering information about Aristide, other Haitian leaders and top Colombian cocaine suppliers since he was suddenly expelled from his homeland eight months ago.
During his rambling courtroom colloquy, Ketant told the judge: ``It's a one-man show, your honor. You either pay [Aristide] or you die. . . . He betrayed me just like Judas betrayed Jesus.''
Moreno said that wasn't why Ketant was before him: ``You see, I'm not sentencing President Aristide. He hasn't been charged.''
''Not yet, your honor,'' Ketant retorted. ``You will be seeing him pretty soon.''
Ketant and Aristide appeared to have been close. One of Ketant's siblings said outside the courtroom that his brother is the godfather to one of Aristide's children.
But the relationship started souring last year. In February, Haitian police gunned down one of Ketant's younger brothers.
Then a key turning point occurred in May. Ketant and his bodyguards roughed up an official at The Union School in Port-au-Prince, where one of his sons studied side by side with the children of U.S. Embassy personnel. Outraged embassy officials complained directly to Aristide.
On June 17, Ketant says he was summoned to the presidential palace but was ''kidnapped'' by Aristide security officers and turned over to waiting Drug Enforcement Administration agents. He was immediately put on a plane and whisked to Miami.
Ketant quickly agreed to plead guilty and promised to forfeit what prosecutors called a ''Midas-like'' collection of wealth in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Ketant was supposed to hand over more than $15 million worth of mansions, luxury cars, businesses, cash, bank accounts and rare art.
He hoped to receive a reduced sentence in return for information about Aristide and others. But the deal quickly fell apart.
Most of the assets -- including 200 rare paintings and $5 million in cash -- disappeared from his $8 million gated mansion in the Vivi Michel hilltop enclave outside Port-au-Prince. U.S. officials have acknowledged that one of Ketant's five ex-wives, escorted by a Haitian police chief, looted the mansion after his expulsion.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kastrenakes -- who prosecuted the case with David Weinstein, Karen Moore and Madeleine Shirley -- said Ketant failed to make any effort to convert other assets that allow his extended family to live in luxury in the United States and Haiti.
Ketant earned millions as the primary contact in Haiti for the Medellín, Cali and Northern Valley cartels, operating several airstrips where large quantities of cocaine were dropped.
DEA officials say Ketant oversaw a large crew of smugglers and ''swallowers'' who took the drugs to Miami, Chicago and New York in suitcases, boats and their stomachs.
He also controlled a vast network of military, police and customs officials in Haiti and the United States who provided security tips and were well compensated to turn their heads as drugs crossed their borders.
Ketant was last seen by DEA agents on the streets of New York in 1996, but escaped on a flight after disguising himself as a woman. A year later, while living in luxury in Haiti, he was indicted by a South Florida federal grand jury.
Two codefendants -- a Colombian cocaine supplier and a Haitian immigration official who turned a blind eye to drug shipments -- were among six people convicted in 1998 in West Palm Beach. Moreno gave the pair life sentences.
Another codefendant, former Port-au-Prince Police Chief Joseph Michel Francois, is a fugitive in Honduras, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
On Wednesday, Ketant's defense attorney, Ruben Oliva, begged Moreno to ask the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to place his client in a South Florida facility so he could be close to stateside family and friends.
The judge refused, but hinted that other U.S. officials might be willing to make it happen: ``I think if what he says is true, there are a lot of people who are going to want to talk to him.''