Pubdate: Wed, 30 Jul 2003
Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Copyright: 2003 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Katy Daigle, The Associated Press


WILLEMSTAD   With its remote beaches, tourist traffic and ties to Europe, 
this palm-fringed Dutch corner of the Caribbean is a paradise, for drug 

The trade has brought a new surge of violence as cartels from nearby 
Colombia move in to ship cocaine to Europe, mainly to Netherlands.

"These organizations are moving and they're moving along with their 
violence, their ways of enforcing the business," said Waldo Santiago, 
spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the Caribbean.

One indicator is the murder rate. It was about 20 in 2001, but jumped to 45 
last year, 40 of them drug-related, and 19 so far this year, 17 
drug-related, according to law enforcement agencies.

"We now have to deal with international organized crime that even recruits 
our youngsters to transport drugs," Justice Minister Norberto Ribeiro said 
recently, announcing that police would step up patrols and searches.

Curacao isn't alone. Authorities on many islands find themselves outspent, 
outgunned and frequently outsmarted by drug lords who move an estimated 650 
tons of cocaine a year through the Caribbean, according to the DEA.

But law enforcement officials say this island of 150,000 people has become 
especially attractive to traffickers, particularly those with ties in 

Curacao is 60 miles off the South American coast, allowing fast boats to 
deposit shipments on deserted beaches in a three-hour run from countries 
such as Colombia.

Cargo ships, seldom searched, can move mass quantities through Willemstad's 
harbor, officials say. Tourists and islanders can swallow packets of 
cocaine for a few thousand dollars and fly to Europe.

"We're in a perfect location, between the drug-producing and drug- 
consuming countries," said spokesman Frank Calmero of the Antillean Coast 
Guard. "If we catch 10 percent of what comes through, we're lucky."

Cocaine seizures by Curacao's police nearly doubled last year, to 2,100 
pounds. The Coast Guard reported similar increases. But the police force of 
about 220 has only 14 narcotics officers and the work is dangerous. Last 
year, a customs officer was wounded and shots were fired at a police 
officer's home. Both work in airport screening for drug smugglers.

In May last year, two prosecutors and two judges involved in drug cases 
received death threats. Government officials were given bodyguards after a 
Spanish-speaking man threatened the finance minister at a restaurant a year 

Every day, about 50 people on average are stopped at airports in Curacao or 
Amsterdam with cocaine, said Lisa Richards-Dindial, the island's deputy 

It got so bad last year that KLM, the Dutch airline, threatened to stop its 
direct flights from Curacao to Amsterdam.

To prevent that, the government agreed to help identify high-risk 
passengers based on prior convictions, travel history or other suspicions 
of drug smuggling, and KLM began sending passenger lists to the Justice 
Ministry in Curacao.

In the first month of preflight screening, 404 passengers were denied seats 
on flights to Amsterdam, about 80 percent of them from Curacao.

The Dutch government this year donated two X-ray machines to the island's 
airport to screen suspected passengers.

With Curacao's economy contracting and unemployment at 15 percent, 
authorities say young people increasingly are turning to the illegal trade.

Teachers and parents talk of schoolkids disappearing for days.

Back in class, they show off new jeweled rings and gold-adorned teeth.

The sole government drug rehabilitation clinic, in operation for two years, 
has registered more than 1,900 patients, most on crack.

"Curacao is getting worse every day. Kids now, all they want is to see a 
lot of money," said Wilfred Isenia, 47, who worked several years packing 
crack, sometimes taking his payment in the drug, until his bosses beat him 
senseless and toothless because they suspected he was a police informer.
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