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Anti-Drug Battle Tops Agenda for Outspoken U.S. Envoy to Bahamas

May 12, 1988|DON A. SCHANCHE | Times Staff Writer

NASSAU, Bahamas — When the new U.S. ambassador came to Nassau to oversee American interests here, mainly the war against narcotics traffic, she did it in appropriate style.

In an unspoken but blunt announcement that she was serious about her role in the drug war, Ambassador Carol Boyd Hallett chose a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration airplane to bring her over from the mainland.

Hallett's pointed choice of carriers scandalized a few Bahamians. "It insulted a whole nation of people," complained Dr. Elwood Donaldson of the Bahamas Concerned Citizens Assn. Neither the prime minister, Lynden O. Pindling, nor the foreign minister, Clement Maynard, was on hand for her arrival. But the press and most community leaders applauded her.

The applause, and the complaints, have continued almost unabated in the 19 months since the slight, 50-year-old former California legislator arrived. And so has Hallett's determination to make a major dent in the enormous quantity of drugs, mainly cocaine and marijuana, that pass through the scattered and hard-to-police islands of the Bahamas en route from Colombia to the United States.

'Undiplomatic Remarks'

During her first year on the job, Hallett privately badgered and publicly chided Bahamian officials in connection with the drug traffic. Her outspoken efforts drew sharp complaints, particularly from Maynard, who devoted a speech in Parliament to her "undiplomatic remarks."

But they also brought praise, including favorable--if exaggerated--comparisons with Moses, Jesus and Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi by a Nassau newspaper editor. An admiring editorial cartoonist dubbed her "Ambassador Halt-It."

"I didn't come here for a popularity contest; I came to get a job done," Hallett said of her willingness to step on toes in a nation where, by World Bank estimates, the drug traffic accounts for 10% of the economy and is the No. 3 hard-currency earner behind tourism and banking.

Whether Bahamian officials were embarrassed into doing better or would have done so without Hallett's goading is not known. Yet her outspoken public pressure and deft behind-the-scenes efforts to step up the Bahamian drug interdiction effort were credited by a senior U.S. DEA officer here as major factors in tightening U.S.-Bahamian cooperation to the point of boosting drug seizures in the Bahamas by 300% in 1987.

The combined efforts of the Bahamian police and defense forces and the U.S. Coast Guard, DEA and Customs accounted for the seizure of roughly 12 tons of cocaine and an astonishing 86 tons of marijuana last year, according to Bahamas Atty. Gen. Paul Adderley. The record was a far cry from the Bahamas' lackluster anti-drug record before Hallett arrived.

For more than a decade the islands were virtually open, providing refueling and transshipment ports for drug planes and boats, most of them operating on orders from the notorious Medellin cocaine cartel in Colombia. By some official U.S. estimates, as much as 60% of the cocaine and marijuana entering the United States passed through the Bahamas. Traffickers like the Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder Rivas, who is on trial in a U.S. district court in Jacksonville, Fla., bought or leased whole islands and were the law unto themselves.

Special Inquiry

It was glaringly obvious that at least some government officials were helping the traffickers. In 1984, a special civil commission of inquiry exposed the widespread corruption of police and public officials, including two of Pindling's Cabinet ministers and some of his closest friends.

Although the commission found no proof of drug payoffs to Pindling, it found documentary evidence that from 1977 to 1983, Pindling and his wife had deposited $3.5 million more in their bank accounts than he had been paid as prime minister.

"It is apparent that the prime minister's expenditure over the years from 1977 has far exceeded his income," the commission concluded.

Under pressure as a result of the commission report, the Pindling government made a show of greater cooperation with U.S. anti-drug agencies. But the situation had improved only slightly by the time Hallett took her post. Few illicit cargoes were seized, and those almost entirely by American anti-drug forces. The lackluster Bahamian performance extended to the courts, where accused traffickers were often set free.

Today, despite the improved cooperation, an extraordinary increase in drug seizures and tougher Bahamian prosecution of drug traffickers, the U.S. State Department still believes Pindling's government is tainted.

"The Bahamian government has not dealt effectively with systematic corruption which continues to make the Bahamas attractive to drug traffickers," Ann B. Wrobleski, the assistant secretary for international narcotics matters, said in congressional testimony.

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