Cuba posting for British police in war on drugs trade

Deal with President Castro sees Scotland Yard officers head for Caribbean to help stem illicit trade. Colin Brown reports
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The Independent Online
Two Scotland Yard officers are going to Cuba as part of an offensive to close down drug-smuggling routes through the Caribbean to Britain, the Home Office minister Tom Sackville announced yesterday.

In a separate move, the Foreign Office has also announced that it is planning to take on new powers to crack down on money laundering in the five Caribbean dependent territories.

Mr Sackville, who speaks Spanish, agreed to send the police officers after a meeting with President Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader, in Cuba last month, where he signed a Customs and Excise cooperation pact.

"I had a hunch that Cuba was straight and they were making an effort to tackle the drugs problem," the Home Office minister told The Independent. "They are a key player in the transit, both in airports and in marine transport, and we need to work as close as possible with them to combat the trafficking."

Mr Sackville, only the second minister in 25 years to visit Cuba - the first was Ian Taylor, the trade and industry minister - came back convinced that Cuba was committed to combating the drugs trade, and could be trusted with intelligence sharing.

Cuba is being targeted by the drugs barons in South America because its waters are barred to the United States Coast Guard. Drugs are dropped off by light aircraft, and picked up from the water to be shipped on to Europe through Cuban ports.

Britain was wary of exchanging intelligence with some other countries in the area, where ministers and officials can be corrupted by the huge volume of money associated with drugs. The Cuban leader made little small talk in their meeting, but in a lengthy speech denounced drug trafficking as a crime against the revolution, and committed his authorities to co- operating with British police and customs officers to prevent Cuba being used for the transfer of drugs from Colombia to Europe.

British intelligence helped in the seizure by the US Coast Guard of a massive shipment of six tons of cocaine via Cuba. In a breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, Cuban officials are ready to testify against the smugglers in a trial early in the new year in the United States.

But the British government also fears that not enough is being done to combat the laundering of the money from the drugs trade through offshore banks in Caribbean countries. Britain has already introduced its own legislation to extend the powers of seizure and disclosure for bank accounts believed to be used in money laundering.

Foreign Office sources yesterday confirmed that Britain is considering extending its powers to introduce the same anti-laundering measures in the five dependent territories - the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Montserrat, and the British Virgin Islands. The Cayman Islands, world-famous for banking, and Bermuda have already begun action against money laundering through their banks. But the Government fears some of the other islands need to take more action.

The aim is to persuade the countries to carry out action voluntarily. It will be one of the priorities for the new governor of the Turks and Caicos, John Kelly, an expert on the Caribbean, who took over recently from Martin Bourke.