Wild, Remote Guyana Becoming Caribbean Drug Hub

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

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 South American 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 sugarcane 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 have shown how the country _ with its slack border controls, rampant corruption, and far-flung diaspora _ has become 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 400 kilos (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 logs also carried $13 million of cocaine to England in May.

Cocaine seizures at Guyana’s main airport grew six times to 230 kilos (500 pounds) last year. 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 tacolike “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 _ into a country where a sugarcane cutter’s scythe was once the most common weapon.

“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.”

An Allentown, Pa., woman, among six U.S. citizens in prison on drug charges in Guyana, recently backed down from testifying against a Guyanese man.

“I don’t want any further trouble, here or at home,” Karen Chobot, face flushed, chin trembling, said in court last month. “I’m afraid of what he is capable of doing in the future.”

She told the judge she would not testify against the snackette owner who gave her the cocaine-laced food seized as she tried to leave Guyana in November. Still, Chobot, serving three years in prison, stood by her statement implicating him.

She said a Guyanese man she met in Allentown last year bought her a ticket to visit him and told her he would marry her. That promise fell apart, and on her way home, she carried a package for his supposed cousin, the snackette owner.

“I just want to go home,” she told her attorney, while holding a card with a Bible verse from her parents. “Please help me.”

The intimidation seems to extend beyond witnesses.

“You don’t know who to trust,” a police sergeant who asked that his name not be used said. “One day you make a report to your boss. The next day you might turn up dead.”

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 dangerous.”

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.

“If you start to use criminals to fight criminals, you become hopelessly compromised,” de Caires said. “After a while, you start to lose control. You then open a Pandora’s box of horror.”

Along the coast, machine guns signal the drug trade with their sporadic pop. The signs in the “Interior,” the hinterlands that make up most of Guyana, come under the cover of night. Villagers say that’s when planes pass overhead.

“You hear noise at night,” said Regina Simon, who lives miles outside Lethem. “In that direction, there’s no airport.”

Trim said cartels smuggled drugs into Guyana through secret airstrips or airdrops in the Interior and smuggle it out through Georgetown’s airports and seaports. He said the country simply did not have the personnel, surveillance or money to patrol its borders effectively.

“Given the resources we have, I think we’re doing a reasonable job,” he said.

President Bharrat Jagdeo asked President Bush for aid to fight drugs in October. But the United States has criticized the country’s record on drug control. Indeed, there are many in Guyana who murmur about whether their government can’t crack down on drugs _ or won’t.

“If not cooperation, there’s an understanding between major drug dealers and the government,” McCormack said. Some have called for Ronald Gajraj, the domestic affairs minister, to step down because he has failed to prosecute criminals. He did not return repeated calls for comment.

He “kept saying there was no crisis,” said Rhyaan Shah, head of a citizens group. “It’s like the Wild West. There’s no order, no discipline, no justice.”

By one estimate, the drug trade is a $175 million industry _ in a country where major exports such as sugar sell too cheaply and all goods and services garner only $700 million.

“Yes, people do make money from the drug industry,” said Col. Fairbairn Liverpool, antidrug coordinator for the Caribbean Community. “And they spread the money around. They have a ‘Robin Hood’ mentality.”

Drug lords also spread the money around to the government and police, he said. Bribed officials “talk about it. They don’t make money by being public servants.”

Ethnic struggle and socialist policies that led to food shortages have almost emptied Guyana. About one-third of the country’s natives live abroad. That has helped the drug trade _ with its reliance on networks across borders _ flourish.

Ronald Gajraj, the domestic affairs minister, has said some 600 deportees, criminals with U.S. street smarts and contacts, have remade the country into a portal for cocaine and a playground for its traffickers.

That, meanwhile, is likely to chase out more Guyanese. Lines outside the U.S. Embassy spill across the street, and many complain the country soon will be home to only the very young and the very old.

“Guyana did not become woebegone yesterday,” publisher de Caires said. “The drug trafficking is just a further complication. (Still,) I’d rather live under Lenin than Al Capone.”

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