Pubdate: Fri, 04 Dec 1998
Source: Associated Press
Copyright: 1998 Associated Press.
Author: JAMES ANDERSON  Associated Press Writer


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) Caribbean troops will be rappelling from U.S.
helicopters and learning how to avoid booby traps in dense tropical foliage
this weekend, preparing for a mission to destroy marijuana on the island
nation of St. Vincent.

Training is beginning despite protests from hundreds of marijuana growers,
who say they have no way to make a legal living.

"At this time of year, if the U.S. comes here and destroys our plantations,
that will spell hardship and the business sector will feel the pinch for
Christmas," said protest leader Junior Cottle.

His new Marijuana Farmers movement, which claims to have 800 members, sent a
letter to President Clinton on Thursday demanding compensation for lost
marijuana plants.

Six U.S. Marine Corps helicopters will ferry more than 120 troops from the
Caribbean Regional Security Service and St. Vincent police force next week
to uproot and burn marijuana plants on remote northern plots.

The two-week operation, targeting mountainous terrain near the 4,000-foot
Soufriere Volcano, was requested by St. Vincent and the Grenadines' prime
minister, Sir James Mitchell.

Similar operations in recent years destroyed millions of plants in Trinidad,
St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Dominica and Antigua. But none have stirred the kind
of organized protest seen in St. Vincent.

Without their plants, the farmers say unemployment in St. Vincent and the
Grenadines will rise above today's 40 percent. That, coupled with U.S.
action against the Caribbean's vital banana industry, could lead to unrest,
they said.

"We have 8,000 people whose livelihood depends on marijuana," said Cottle.

With an estimated 12,350 acres in production, St. Vincent is the eastern
Caribbean's largest marijuana producer. Most is consumed on neighboring

St. Vincent business leaders concede that, although illegal, marijuana has
become important to their economy. And it could become even more important,
because the United States has successfully challenged a European Union quota
system that was crucial to the region's banana industry.

How much the marijuana crop is worth isn't known. But when the harvest comes
in, soda trucks return to their Kingstown bases empty, and downtown store do
a brisker business, said Martin Barnard, president of the Chamber of
Industry and Commerce.

"They told me they're in trouble the jobs are not there, they have children
to support, they have to turn to the hills to farm marijuana," said Barnard.
"I am sympathetic to all that ... but at the end of the day we had to say,
`Fellows, it is illegal."'

Mitchell and other Caribbean leaders have long warned that, without a
European market for their bananas, many farmers will turn to marijuana or to
smuggling cocaine and heroin. In St. Vincent, population 110,000, the banana
industry employs up to 60 percent of the workforce.

But Mitchell told the farmers that tolerating their illegal work could lead
to U.S. sanctions. Many farmers planned to harvest their plants before the
U.S. helicopters arrive.

U.S. officials say the Marines will only transport troops, not destroy
plants. But there are risks, said Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Douglass.

Regional troops will be trained to detect booby traps, such as shaved bamboo
sticks in pits or crude pipe guns fired by trip wires, Douglass said.

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Checked-by: Don Beck