NINE MILE, Jamaica — Robin Downs watched a government team, including policemen, invade his small patch of marijuana. Downs, 31, a quiet man who wears his hair braided in "dreadlocks," kept a discreet distance to avoid arrest.
"I had to stay far in the bushes," he recalled.
He heard the hoarse wail of gasoline-powered brush cutters, smelled the acrid smoke from a crackling bonfire, saw his crop go up in billowing clouds.
That was several months ago. Now, like a lot of other people in this rural mountain community, Downs is broke--and bitter.
"They destroy a lot of herb around here," he said. "It is our main substance we can make a little something out of, and they cut it down, man. They kill out the breed."
A U.S.-supported marijuana eradication campaign that began in late 1984 has dramatically disrupted marijuana production--and rural life--in this Caribbean country of 2.2 million people.
Jamaica is the No. 3 foreign supplier of marijuana to the United States after Colombia and Mexico. And marijuana, here called herb, or "ganja," is an important cash crop for tens of thousands of subsistence farmers and rural laborers on the island.
U.S. officials estimate that up to 40% of the country's marijuana production has been destroyed in the field over the last 18 months and that perhaps 20% more has been seized from smugglers.
"The Jamaican government has shown a very positive attitude in cooperating with all this," a U.S. official said.
A major incentive for Jamaican cooperation is U.S. economic aid, which comes to $141 million in the present fiscal year.
"I think it is publicly known," a Jamaican official said, "that the government of the United States would withhold aid unless the country demonstrates its will to deal with the drug situation."
Some officials speculate that the marijuana eradication campaign in Jamaica will be intensified as a result of President Reagan's recently announced plan for fighting drug abuse and drug trafficking.
In the present fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the United States is providing more than $800,000 to Jamaica for marijuana eradication.
In the pre-harvest season last spring, about 50 teams of armed police and civilian cutters worked the mountainous countryside. U.S. funds provided the brush-cutting machines, paid civilian salaries and covered other expenses, including fuel and food.
4,000 Acres Wiped Out
Sam McKay, Jamaica's deputy police commissioner and the official in charge of the eradication campaign, said marijuana crops on more than 4,000 acres were wiped out in 1985. So far in 1986, he said, about 1,400 acres have been destroyed.
"It has been extremely successful," McKay said in an interview in Kingston, the Jamaican capital. He said the eradication effort will continue to grow, adding, "We have always been increasing it, because our commitment is to total eradication."
But Police Commissioner Herman Ricketts said the goal is probably unattainable because marijuana growers are always seeking out new areas for cultivation.
"We will eradicate 4,000 acres, and they will find acreage somewhere else," he said.
Much marijuana production is moving into remote, forested areas that are harder for authorities to find and reach. Ricketts said some small growers have been arrested, but he acknowledged that big planters and dealers are evading the law.
Direct Contact Avoided
The big planters avoid direct contact with the marijuana, he said, declaring: "So you catch the workers. We have made some arrests, but not commensurate with the eradication."
Ricketts also acknowledged that marijuana dealers are often able to buy protection.
"We know that wherever the drug business is, there is large-scale corruption of officials," he said. "It is something that is going to command very serious concern."
He said that eight policemen have been arrested on drug-related charges since early 1985. None has ranked higher than corporal. In a recent trial, a police corporal was convicted for possession of 170 pounds of marijuana, but four civilians were acquitted.
"The Jamaican system," a foreign diplomat said, "has been incapable--I don't know if unwilling--of convicting major known Jamaican traffickers."
Introduced in 1830s
Marijuana was introduced to colonial Jamaica in the 1830s by indentured servants from India. Rural people commonly smoke the leaves and use them to make medicinal tea. In some Jamaican religious sects, including the Rastafarian movement, it is smoked as part of a ritual.
Rastafarians believe that the late emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, is a divine saviour, that Ethiopia is Eden and that someday all blacks will return to Africa.
Cultivation of marijuana has been prohibited by law since 1913, but enforcement has been lax. Production has increased in the last two decades as smuggling to the United States has increased.