PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Nearly a year ago, Haitian public security chief Robert Manuel warned of "macabre plots" by international drug cartels to infiltrate his impoverished nation, co-opt its politicians, corrupt its nascent U.S.-built police force and foment disorder.
The occasion: A large shipment of Colombian cocaine destined for the United States had been abandoned in the village of Aquin on Haiti's south coast. Peasants began to divide the spoils. The police arrived, beat several villagers and seized the cocaine--which then simply vanished. Twenty police officers were later arrested.
It was an incident that has been repeated since with disturbing frequency, according to Haitian police Inspector General Eucher Luc Joseph, who concluded at the time that the sudden flood of cocaine into this strategic Caribbean nation had become a "gangrene" in society and created a battleground within the police force.
Today, by most accounts, the powerful cartels appear to be winning the drug war here in the Western Hemisphere's poorest and most vulnerable nation, threatening a multibillion-dollar international effort to build a modern, democratic state.
As Colombia's cocaine producers increasingly turn to what the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calls "a labyrinth of smuggling routes throughout the central Caribbean" to reach U.S. consumers, Haiti has emerged as the path of least resistance.
"The situation in Haiti is clearly an emergency," U.S. anti-drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey said during a Caribbean drug-control conference in Miami earlier this month.
Much of the cocaine reaching the United States through the Caribbean now transits Haiti, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. It lands by sea or air along a 955-mile coastline virtually unpatrolled by the Haitian coast guard, which the U.S. government is still trying to develop.
Most of the cocaine then moves across Haiti's porous border into the neighboring Dominican Republic, the Caribbean's main staging ground for shipments to the United States. From there, Dominican boats known as yolas run the cocaine by sea to the nearby U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, which is linked by air to more than a dozen U.S. cities.
As for drug enforcement here on the critical first leg in that route, one Western law enforcement source said this week: "To say Haiti is a black hole is an understatement. It's wide open."
So too is the Haitian state.
The country has been without a government for 17 months, as opposition factions in parliament have blocked President Rene Preval's nominees for prime minister--an impasse that has frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid to the underdeveloped nation, where the per capita income is $260 a year.
And increasingly, as Manuel and Joseph warned a year ago, the multibillion-dollar drug trade is helping to fill the void, undermining a continuing U.S.-led effort to build an honest and effective national police force as a catalyst for rebuilding the nation, say Western diplomats here.
"It's just their luck that the police force has been stood up at the very moment Haiti has become an important transit point for drugs," said Colin Granderson, a Trinidadian diplomat who heads a joint United Nations-Organization of American States mission to monitor police in Haiti.
A recent U.N. report praised the fledgling 6,800-member police force for its improved investigative skills and senior officials such as Manuel and Joseph for their continued efforts against corruption. More than 700 officers have been suspended, dismissed or disciplined this year, many for drug offenses.
But the hundreds of pounds of cocaine that police have seized here continue to disappear--"absorbed," as one international police monitor here put it, by a system that pays its average street officer $313 a month. And many foreign observers say they fear that mounting frustration over corruption and the political stalemate could end the foreign aid that has made the police force one of Haiti's few functioning institutions.
"The real concern is that the Americans will get fed up and walk away from Haiti," said one European diplomat who asked not to be named. "The drug cartels are well-positioned now to step in and take over. The result would be a virtual narco-state--just a few hundred miles off the American coastline."