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Crack trade grips Caribbean

THERE IS a place on the tiny Caribbean island of St Lucia where even the police, let alone tourists, fear to tread.

They call it The Graveyard, a hillside shanty town on the slopes above the capital, Castries, which has become a hideout for criminals who can flee into its winding alleyways and melt into the night. The people who live inside are so poor that they built their homes on the top of the century-old tombs of colonial notables.

Now many of the folks in The Graveyard - few call it by its real name, Wilton's Yard - make a living selling crack cocaine instead of the traditional ganja (marijuana). The cocaine is brought in from the big cartels in Colombia, and most of it passes through this or the other eastern Caribbean islands known as the Windwards, and is shipped on to the US or Europe on powerboats, banana freighters or even tourist package planes. But more and more of it stays, as payment from the cartels. It is responsible for the kind of crimes - rape, murder, and armed robbery - that once did not happen here.

Largely as a result of the decline in the traditional banana industry, the drug trade is growing quickly in the former Caribbean colonies of Britain, France and Holland. Governments here, as well as US anti-narcotics agents, say one-third of all cocaine reaching the US or Europe now comes through the Windward Islands - more than 100 tons a year.

As a result of the so-called "banana war", with the US opposing preferential European treatment for the former colonies' major export, marijuana is increasingly becoming the cash crop of choice here. Farmers can make up to 10 times more from marijuana than they can from bananas. And the Colombian, Mexican and other cocaine cartels are increasingly using the expertise of Caribbean farmers and fishermen - and the traditionally laid-back attitude of local customs men - to move their product on to the big markets of New York, Amsterdam or elsewhere.

Lenient sentences against drug dealers are adding to the problem. Four Britons who tried to leave St Lucia last month with a total of 100lb of cocaine in their luggage, the largest haul recovered here, were reportedly sentenced only to fines of around pounds 25,000 each. If they cannot pay, they may serve up to three years in jail but it is an astonishingly light sentence by world standards and one that frustrates US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents.

"St Lucia has become a trans-shipment point for drugs from Central or South America," the Prime Minister, Kenny Anthony, told the Independent on Sunday last week. "It is a problem of immense proportions." That is not to say this little island is the centre of such operations or dangerous to come to. It is just one of many of the Windward Islands where cocaine moves through, generally from remote beaches tourists never see.

Mr Anthony said the four Britons recently arrested appeared to have been offered free holidays by London-based drug dealers linked to Colombian cartels and Caribbean middlemen. All they had to do was stash 25lb of the white powder each in their bags. Perhaps thanks to recent training by local members of HM Customs, St Lucian customs men noticed the four were somewhat sweatier and more anxious than the average tourist.

"We know some Colombians are here," Mr Anthony said. "And one of our problems is that, as a result of a successful crackdown on money-laundering, the traffickers are paying their local contacts in cocaine rather than cash. We have seen internal warfare over `turf'. And because of the increasing pressure executed by our police on drug dealers, there is a shortage of cash in some drug-dealing communities, leading to more crime to sustain drug habits."

American anti-narcotics agents speak of a "marriage" between Colombian traffickers and local Caribbean smugglers. "It makes sense to use the existing contraband routes," said one DEA agent. "The local police are doing their best but the waters around here are so wide, the coastlines so extensive, that you just can't cover them all."

The marijuana growers hide their fields in remote forests or among banana plantations that are almost impossible for police or anti-narcotics agents to spot from the air or reach on foot. "They'll grow the stuff on the sides of hills you can only reach by abseiling," a St Lucian law enforcement officer said.

One result of the "banana war" is that Caribbean governments have threatened to end an agreement with the US under which the US Coast Guard can enter Caribbean islands' waters in "hot pursuit" of drug traffickers. The threat, made somewhat in anger over the banana issue, has already been widely criticised by the people in this region, who believe that would be cutting the Caribbean islands' own throats.

"If we do not co-operate with the Americans, these islands could become a string of Colombias," a senior Caribbean government official said.