Pubdate: Sun, 08 Feb 2004
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2004 The Miami Herald
Author: Gaiutra Bahadur, Knight Ridder News Service


Drugs And Related Crime Are Increasing In Guyana, Tiny South American 
Nation Of 700,000 People

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 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 sugar-cane 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

Several recent cases show how the country -- with its slack border
controls, rampant corruption and far-flung diaspora -- is now 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 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 lumber also carried $13 million
of cocaine to England in May.

Cocaine seizures at Guyana's main airport grew six times to 500 pounds
in 2003. 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 taco-like 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

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. "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?"

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.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake