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Haiti: The Politics of Drugs

posted by Nik Barry-Shaw Geography: Latin America Haiti Topics: haiti

June 26, 2007

Haiti: The Politics of Drugs

An anonymous source recently pointed out the markedly partisan bias of the U.S. government's crackdown on drug trafficking in Haiti. According to the source, the six biggest Haitian drug traffickers at the time of the coup d’etat of February 29, 2004 were Jean Nesly Lucien, Fourel Celestin, Oriel Jean, Guy Philippe, Dany Toussaint and Youri Latortue. Of the six, those who supported the coup still walk free today and are even involved in domestic politics, while those who supported Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Famni Lavalas party have been pounced on by the US Drug Enforcement Administration and thrown in jail.

Jean Nesly Lucien, former director general of the Haitian National Police, was arrested in May 2004 and extradited to the US. Lucien pleaded guilty on a money-laundering conspiracy charge and was sentenced in July 2005 to nearly five years in prison.

Fourel Celestin, President of the Haitian Senate during the Lavalas government, was arrested in late May 2004 and extradited to the US. Convicted in 2005 after a plea deal with Miami prosecutors, Célestin admitted taking a $200,000 bribe to help secure the release of two detained Colombian drug traffickers. Célestin is now cooperating with prosecutors.

Oriel Jean, the presidential security chief for Aristide, was arrested by immigration officers in Toronto in March 2004 and extradited to the US. A plea bargain deal allowed him to serve less than 3 years in jail, in exchange for cooperating with the DEA.

The arrests are part of a legal full-court press to make a case against Aristide. According to the Miami Herald, "the DEA, IRS and other federal agencies are still aggressively investigating whether Aristide was involved in . . . cocaine smuggling, received kickbacks from traffickers, or stole money from his own government and funneled it through U.S. banks and shell companies."

Although the investigations have produced much plea bargain-induced testimony against Aristide, no hard evidence has been uncovered. Yet for the Herald, the issue is not so much the lack of evidence as the good diplomatic etiquette of the US government: "[I]t remains to be seen whether prosecutors will ever ask the grand jury to indict Aristide, partly because he is a former head of state." Manuel Noriega would no doubt beg to differ.

Guy Philippe, the leader of the "rebels" (read: former soldiers and death squad members) who invaded Haiti from the Dominican Republic in February 2004, has long been accused of involvement in drug trafficking. The DEA suspected Philippe was involved in drug trafficking when he was police chief in the northern port of Cap Haitien in the late 90s. U.S. drug agents once even tried to recruit Philippe as an informant , but he turned them down, saying that the traffickers paid him more.

Philippe fled to the DR in October 2000 after a coup plot he and some fellow police commanders had hatched with the help of the US military attache was uncovered by the government. Philippe's subsequent coup attempts - July 2001, December 2001 and numerous attacks in 2003 - culminating in the 2004 "uprising" were financed by a Canadian-Haitian businessman who has been linked to the drug trade by the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Philippe's involvement in the drug trade (not to mention his rampage of rape and murder throughout Haiti) hasn't hindered his involvement in politics since the coup. Philippe formed a political party, ran for the presidency in the February 2006 elections, getting a whopping 1.92 % of the vote, and has even appeared at seminars on women's rights (!) hosted by pro-coup feminist groups such as Famn Yo La.

Dany Toussaint has long been labeled by U.S. officials as a suspected trafficker. In 2001, Republican Congressman Porter Goss wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell that Toussaint is "credibly linked by a number of US government agencies to narcotics trafficking in Haiti."

Toussaint, a Senator with Famni Lavalas while Aristide was in power, broke with Aristide when it became evident which way the winds of political change were blowing. Toussaint's presence in the government of Aristide was often held up as an example of the impunity that supposedly reigned under his administration; Toussaint used his Senatorial immunity to shield himself from investigations into his role in the assassination of famed radio journalist Jean Dominique. Critics' passion for justice, however, disappeared after the Senator switched sides and joined the opposition shortly before the coup.

Possessed by the same delusional megalomania as Philippe, Toussaint ran for president as well, fielding 7,905 votes or 0.41% of the total.

Youri Latortue, the nephew of former Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, was the main subject of a December 2005 investigation by the Miami Herald into drug traffiicking in Haiti:

“U.N. Civilian Police are concerned that Youri Latortue is trying to take control of the diplomatic lounge at the Port-au-Prince international airport, one way that drug traffickers have traditionally bypassed official scrutiny while entering and leaving Haiti, one top U.N. official told The Miami Herald. And there are credible reports that Youri has close ties to a gang of armed thugs in Gonaives that controls the drug trafficking through the seaport, the official added. Youri Latortue, meanwhile, has struck a political alliance with Guy Philippe, one of the leaders of the rebellion that ousted Aristide and now a candidate for the presidency. The two apparently knew each other when they served in the Haitian police."

During his time as security chief for his uncle, Youri Latortue was also renowned for his involvement in repression, kidnapping and corruption. Latortue earned the nickname "Mr. 30 Percent", allegedly for the amount in kickbacks that he demanded on government contracts, reported the French daily Le Figaro. Sources here in Haiti claim that Youri Latortue organized and controlled from the Prime Minister’s office the black-clad death squads that patrolled the capital during the Interim Government's reign of terror.

Youri's connections with Guy Philippe's thugs in Gonaives, meanwhile, paid off in the legislative elections, making him the Senator for the Artibonite region. In a truly perverse outcome, Latortue is now the President of the Senate Commission on Justice and Public Security, a platform which he has repeatedly used to call for the reestablishment of the Haitian Army (an institution which itself had a long history of involvement in drug trafficking).

The US government’s hypocritical and one-sided fight against drug transshipment through Haiti is merely the latest instance of anti-drug trafficking efforts being subordinated to larger foreign policy goals. Whether in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Central America, Colombia or Haiti, US planners have often relied on the services of drug dealers to achieve their aims.

In his semial account of the CIA's role in the Southeast Asian drug trade, historian Alfred McCoy wrote: "American involvement had gone far beyond coincidental complicity; embassies had covered up involvement by client governments, CIA contract airlines had carried opium, and individual CIA agents had winked at the opium traffic."

"In most cases, the CIA's role involved various forms of complicity, tolerance or studied ignorance about the trade, not any direct culpability in the actual trafficking ... [t]he CIA did not handle heroin, but it did provide its drug-lord allies with transport, arms, and political protection. In sum, the CIA's role in the Southeast Asian heroin trade involved indirect complicity rather than direct culpability."

Hence, despite the fulsome praise of the State Department for its interdiction efforts, cocaine passing through Haiti increased during the Interim Government period, a natural outcome of its close relations with drug traffickers such as Guy Philippe (whom Gerard Latortue hailed as a "freedom fighter") and Youri Latortue.

The partisan bias of US law enforcement initiatives was unmistakable to the ICG: "[O]nly suspects believed to be close to Lavalas have been detained in combined HNP/DEA operations. The perceived inaction of international law enforcement agencies with regard to the transitional government has led many in Haiti to believe that their actions are driven in part by political or strategic reasons. The roles of U.S. agencies such as the DEA and CIA, therefore, continue to be controversial."

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