Pubdate: Sun, 06 Feb 2000
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Jose Mercury News
Contact:  750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190
Fax: (408) 271-3792
Author: Mark Fineman, Los Angeles Times


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'' (marijuana) 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, seven 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 drug.

``This thing is way overbearing, man,'' said Stump-i, a
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 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
counternarcotics 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 last month in the week of hacking and burning, though
the local police commissioner insists that as much as half the crop was

``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

Local markets

What's 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 lives.

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 is mushrooming in the Caribbean
largely as a result of the region's role as a conduit for Colombian cocaine
en route to the United States and Europe.

Not much violence

``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 ``tinder boxes'' 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

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 the U.S. government. Vincentians
already were irate over continuing American 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.''

``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.''

Understanding the trade

The planters wish the outside world -- and especially the United States --
better understood their trade and its vital role in a small nation where an
estimated 40 percent 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 God.''
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