Pubdate: Fri, 30 Jan 2004
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2004 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Gaiutra Bahadur, Inquirer Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


LETHEM, Guyana - 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 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.

A former Miss Guyana

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 

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.

A wide swath

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.

An Allentown 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 

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.

Guyana's Stabroek News won't investigate the alleged nexus of drugs, 
militias and government corruption. "No way," said publisher David de Caires.

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.

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.

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.

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.

That 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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom