Pubdate: Sun, 16 Jan 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: Mark Fineman, Times Staff Writer


Growers, However, Say U.S.-Led Raid Razed Ganja Crop--and Livelihoods.

YORKE MOUNTAIN, St. Vincent--As they tended their little plots in the
marijuana fields that blanket the mountainside in full view of this
nation's capital, Tornado, Moon and Stump-i lamented their miserable
Christmas. First came the Colombians, dumping huge quantities of
marijuana at deflated prices throughout the region in a bid to take
control of the Caribbean ganja market.

Then the U.S. Marines landed.

Three Marine combat helicopters packed with Caribbean troops, U.S.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents and St. Vincentian police
descended on marijuana fields in this remote southeastern corner of
the Caribbean just before Christmas.

During a weeklong operation dubbed Weedeater, they slashed and burned
more than 5 million marijuana plants, 7 tons of cured pot and 250
drying huts, arresting 13 farmers and killing one. All this on a small
island that per capita is one of the world's largest producers of the

"This thing is way overbearing, man," said Stump-i, a Rastafarian
fisherman-turned-farmer whose 300-pound harvest went up in smoke. As
he spoke, he tended a new crop that will be market-ready in three months.

Added Tornado, whose adjacent plot overlooking Kingstown, the capital,
survived: "If the Americans destroy all the marijuana in St. Vincent,
they'll destroy St. Vincent. It's the backbone of the economy. It's
our livelihood. And now that the Americans have killed us on bananas,
we have no other choice." Welcome to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a
nation of 32 islands and about 120,000 people where, according to
anthropologists, sociologists and counter-narcotics agents, ganja
quietly rules.

By their estimates, illegal marijuana sales and exports account for
close to a fifth of St. Vincent's gross domestic product; as many as a
fifth of adults smoke it regularly; and local politicians and business
leaders privately concede that the drug is the driving force in the
island's economy--even bigger than its traditional banana crop, which
has fallen victim to U.S. trade policy.

Most island businesspeople, in fact, attributed slumping
Christmas-season sales of all goods to incomes lost due to the
U.S.-led eradication operation. The net effect: Weedeater has inflamed
anti-American sentiment and rekindled a movement to decriminalize the
drug here, even as it failed to destroy the bulk of the crop.

"We didn't touch nearly a tenth of what's up there," said one of the
eight DEA agents who joined in the weeklong hacking and burning last
month--though the local police commissioner insists that as much as
half the crop was destroyed.

"There's just so much of it," said the DEA agent. "To make a
significant dent, it's something that would have to be done on a much
more regular basis."

What is more, the State Department concedes that little of St.
Vincent's marijuana ends up in the United States. Most is sold along a
wide swath of the Caribbean, from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Aruba.

So why bother? A U.S. official who asked not to be identified
explained that the annual Operation Weedeater is "basically a training
mission for the U.S. Marines" and the Barbados-based Regional Security
Service, an anti-drug unit staffed by Caribbean nations.

Besides, the official added, they were invited.

Ganja may rule here, but local political leaders assert--and U.S.
officials agree--that it does not govern. This nation, in fact, is far
better known for the largely ganja-free Grenadines, an island chain of
white-sand beaches where Rolling Stones rocker Mick Jagger has a
winter retreat, the world's rich and famous berth multimillion-dollar
yachts and Prime Minister James F. Mitchell makes his home.

For Mitchell, the "weedeating" exercise, financed each year by U.S.
taxpayers, is a show of strength, a reminder that politicians are more
powerful than planters and that his is a responsible and peace-loving

Indeed, despite marijuana's economic dominance, St. Vincent has seen
little of the soaring crime and violence that are mushrooming in the
Caribbean largely as a result of the region's role as a conduit for
Colombian cocaine bound for the U.S. and Europe.

"The ganja industry here has not been accompanied by much violence,"
said Ralph Gonsalves, a lawyer and member of Parliament who heads the
political opposition. "You've had instances where people will fight
over a particular marijuana crop, but you also have violent land
disputes over other crops.

"It's simply amazing for an industry that generates so much money to
have been so free of violence."

But local police officials and outside analysts worry that the
phenomenon may not last.

Rens Lee, a Virginia-based author and consultant on the drug trade who
recently studied St. Vincent, called it and other Caribbean islands
involved in trafficking "tinderboxes" in which, "for one reason or
another, they have the potential of turning in on themselves and
popping their cork."

"In St. Vincent, this dependence on marijuana is unhealthy," he added.
"As long as this is an illegal drug, it's going to be a source of tension."

National Police Commissioner Osborne Quow said the potential violence
justifies eradication efforts. Despite statistics published in local
newspapers showing that the country had just 20 killings last
year--eight of them by police--Quow said: "Cultivating ganja is one
thing. But our biggest worry is that they're killing one another."

The most recent killing was one that infuriated many Vincentians.
Junior "Turtle" Harry was gunned down by police officers on the final
day of Weedeater--two days after U.S. and Caribbean forces had pulled
out. Quow said Harry pointed a shotgun at his men near a ganja field
in the hills, although Harry's family said he didn't even own a suit
to wear at his own funeral, much less a gun.

The death, which most Vincentians associate with the U.S.-led
operation, unleashed a vitriolic campaign against Washington.

Vincentians were already irate over continuing U.S. efforts to end
Europe's preferential treatment of Caribbean bananas.

The result of that trade conflict has been lower prices and reduced
incentives to banana farmers here, some of whom now are growing
marijuana in what opposition leader Gonsalves wryly dubbed "our most
successful agricultural diversification project."

In Weedeater's aftermath, P. C. Hughes, a prominent businessman and a
firebrand columnist in the weekly Vincentian, called the U.S. "an
immoral travesty of greed, selfishness and bullying. . . . They rule
us for their own ends."

Even American author Lee is critical of U.S. policy here, which
includes pressuring St. Vincent's nascent offshore financial sector to
adopt tighter regulations on money laundering.

"We're pushing St. Vincent on bananas, pushing on offshore banking,
pushing on marijuana, but we're taking actions that are
counterproductive," Lee said. "I think we should be going in there
with economic assistance, offering alternatives to bananas and marijuana."

U.S. heavy-handedness already seems to be eroding what Gonsalves
called "a substantial body of the population that feels it's immoral
to cultivate ganja--their number is decreasing."

The chief beneficiary appears to be Junior "Spirit" Cottle and his
campaign to decriminalize the drug here.

Cottle, an activist who spent 11 1/2 years in prison for killing the
country's attorney general in 1973 and still carries a bullet in his
head from a shootout during his arrest, asserted that support is
growing for a crop he calls "the key to our economic

Weedeater, he argued, has helped his United Front for Progress--which
his supporters call "an alliance of revolutionary community
groups"--to recruit members and promote its pro-marijuana agenda
through protests. But Cottle conceded that there's little hope the
drug will be decriminalized soon--even here.

Gonsalves agrees.

"From a public policy standpoint, it makes no sense for any
responsible politician to advocate the legalization of marijuana,"
said the former Marxist, who was the highest vote getter in 1998
parliamentary elections. "And I think the people who are growing
marijuana understand that."

Moon said he understands it all too well, as do Tornado and Stump-i.
The Yorke Mountain planters, as a matter of policy, use only their

The planters wish the outside world, especially the U.S., better
understood their trade and its vital role in a small nation where an
estimated 40% of the labor force is unemployed.

"We understand that people out in the world see this as a drug,"
Tornado said, twirling a marijuana seedling between blistered fingers
after a half-hour climb up the steep, muddy trails that lead to their
fields. "Here, this isn't a drug. It's a plant--a plant that brings
food to the table. And anything that brings food is something from

"We're poor people, fed-up people who are just trying to survive,"
said the 31-year-old Tornado, who turned to ganja growing when he lost
a construction job. "And they want to destroy that."

By "they," Tornado explained, he meant more than just the Americans.
In the weeks before the Marines ferried in more than 100 Caribbean and
U.S. anti-drug personnel last month, Colombian drug traffickers poured
tons of their own marijuana into the eastern Caribbean islands that
are St. Vincent's principal ganja market, the planters said. Some of
the Colombian marijuana, Tornado and other growers said, was laced
with cocaine or heroin--an attempt to build addiction rates for
Colombia's far more lucrative illegal exports. But the effect was the
same: It drove marijuana prices to record lows in the region.

So now, even after Operation Weedeater, the ganja growers whose
profits Police Commissioner Quow conceded "flow right through our
national economy" are facing an uncertain future--as is St. Vincent.

In fields where their ancestors once hunted iguana and dug up wild
yams--and where even today the ganja growers plow barefoot with rusted
machetes--Tornado and Moon, an 18-year-old high school dropout, see
more trouble ahead.

"If we can't do this, then we've got nothing to do," Tornado said.
"And then, you're going to make us like the people in Africa."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake