Virgin territory for narcotics barons

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The South American drug cartels are spreading their smuggling operations from Central America and the western Caribbean to the 29 countries of the eastern Caribbean stretching from Surinam to the British Virgin Islands.

Tightened security in the established cocaine conduit areas have forced the drug cartels to change tack and now it is feared they will exploit the eastern Caribbean's comparative unfamiliarity with drug smuggling by flooding the new route with drugs for Britain, the rest of Europe and the United States.

Evidence from the United Nations Drug Control Programme, based in Barbados and funded chiefly by the British government, shows that 180 tonnes of cocaine were smuggled into Europe from South America via the eastern Caribbean this year - roughly 50kg a day. About 60 per cent came via Britain, arriving on cargo ships and passenger flights.

As much as one-fifth of the Europe-bound total is estimated to have travelled with couriers - and sometimes holidaymakers - according to one counter- narcotics expert in Barbados, and it is believed there could be as many as three cocaine runs a week to Britain.

Many more British holidaymakers are taking advantage of lower holiday prices in the Caribbean. And despite a graphic film now showing on flights from the United Kingdom warning of the penalties of drug smuggling, some ignore the risks and carry consignments of cocaine back to the UK.

The director of the UN programme in Barbados, Dr Sandro Calvani, said the narcotics trade is like a balloon.

"You squeeze it here and it pops out over there. As their routes have been closed down the narco-traffickers have been pushed further and further east so these islands are now beginning to see a lot more drug activity," he said.

He added that 1997 will be a crucial year in the fight against trafficking which would only be won if all the eastern Caribbean nations worked together to stifle the threat. With limited resources, however, and some countries only having one or two patrol boats to try to intercept the powerful speedboats of the smugglers, they seem outgunned.

The UN programme is well placed in Barbados, which is a prime target for the traffickers. As the Caribbean's most easterly outpost with arguably the best air and sea-freight facilities in the region and close trade links with Britain, it serves their purpose well.

Despite the island having some of the toughest drug penalties in the region, 827 drug cases were recorded up to the end of October 1996, against 745 cases for the entire year 1995. Twelve tonnes of cocaine found in a cargo ship in Spain last month were traced back to the island and in London in December 1994, pounds 1m worth of cocaine was seized on a British Airways flight from the island.

Other islands in the Leeward and Windward chain are also at risk. A recent Internet advertisement promoted Antiguan money-laundering services by promising: "We handle cash derived from ANY activity." And a string of recent murders and disappearances in St Kitts was also linked with trafficking.

A European Union report on the current crisis highlighted the islands' vulnerability and warned that it posed a threat to the region's democracy. Weak economies, underpaid and demoralised officials and low counter-narcotics spending were laying eastern Caribbean states wide open to the traffickers.

"At street value, 1kg of cocaine is often worth more than the average salary of a judge in the Caribbean and a customs officer could house, feed and educate his family for three years for just not searching one suitcase," the report said.

Dr Calvani fears that the drug barons may soon infiltrate the political arena in this part of the Caribbean. "Whereas traffickers in the past have been interested solely in the business side of their trade, now they are also eager for political power," he said.