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Island Becomes a Must-Stop for Drug Smugglers

Curacao, close to South America and with strong ties to Europe, has seen cocaine trafficking and its murder rate soar.

August 10, 2003|Katy Daigle | Associated Press Writer

WILLEMSTAD, Curacao — With its remote beaches, tourist traffic and ties to Europe, this palm-fringed Dutch corner of the Caribbean is a paradise -- for drug traffickers.

The trade has brought a new surge of violence as cartels from nearby Colombia move in to carry cocaine to Europe, mainly the Netherlands.

"These organizations are moving, and they're moving along with their violence, their ways of enforcing the business," said Waldo Santiago, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the Caribbean.

One indicator is the murder rate. It was about 20 in 2001, but jumped to 45 last year, 40 of them drug-related, and 19 so far this year, 17 drug-related, according to law enforcement agencies.

"We now have to deal with international organized crime that even recruits our youngsters to transport drugs," Justice Minister Norberto Ribeiro said recently, announcing that police would step up patrols and searches.

Curacao isn't alone. Authorities on many islands find themselves outspent, outgunned and frequently outsmarted by drug lords who move an estimated 650 tons of cocaine a year through the Caribbean, according to the DEA.

But law enforcement officials say this island of 150,000 people has become especially attractive to traffickers, particularly those with ties in the Netherlands.

Curacao lies just 60 miles off the South American coast, allowing fast boats to deposit shipments on deserted beaches in just a three-hour run from countries such as Colombia.

Cargo ships, seldom searched, can move mass quantities through Willemstad's harbor, officials say. Tourists and islanders can swallow packets of cocaine for a few thousand dollars and fly nonstop to Europe.

"We're in a perfect location, between the drug-producing and drug-consuming countries," said spokesman Frank Calmero of the Antillean Coast Guard. "If we catch 10% of what comes through, we're lucky."

Cocaine seizures by Curacao's police nearly doubled last year, to 2,100 pounds. The Coast Guard reported similar increases. But the police force of about 220 has only 14 narcotics officers and the work is dangerous. Last year, a customs officer was wounded and shots were fired at a police officer's home. Both work in airport screening for drug smugglers.

In May last year, two prosecutors and two judges involved in drug cases received death threats. Government officials were given bodyguards after a Spanish-speaking man threatened the finance minister at a restaurant a year ago.

"All we can do is make ourselves a nuisance," said a senior police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We need more help from the Netherlands -- after all, it's their front doorstep we are cleaning up."

Every day, about 50 people on average are stopped at airports in Curacao or Amsterdam with cocaine, said Lisa Richards-Dindial, the island's deputy governor.

It got so bad last year that KLM, the Dutch airline, threatened to stop its direct flights from Curacao to the Netherlands.

To prevent that, the government agreed to help identify high-risk passengers based on prior convictions, travel history or other suspicions of drug smuggling, and KLM began sending passenger lists to the Justice Ministry in Curacao.

In the first month of preflight screening, 404 passengers were denied seats on flights to Amsterdam, about 80% of them from Curacao.

The Dutch government this year donated two X-ray machines to the island's airport to screen suspected passengers.

Still, Curacao has become a drug clearinghouse, with islanders employed in packaging cocaine and preparing crack.

"The drugs are produced in Colombia, but the poor people here are used to handle and distribute it," said Onno Koerten, Dutch representative to Curacao and the other four territories that make up the Netherlands Antilles. "A lot of people here have become dependent on drugs for the economy."

With Curacao's economy contracting and unemployment at 15%, authorities say young people increasingly are turning to the illegal trade.

Teachers and parents talk of school kids disappearing for days. Back in class, they show off new jeweled rings and gold-adorned teeth.

The sole government drug rehabilitation clinic, in operation for two years, has registered more than 1,900 patients, most on crack.

"Curacao is getting worse every day. Kids now, all they want is to see a lot of money," said Wilfred Isenia, 47, who worked several years packing crack, sometimes taking his payment in the drug, until his bosses beat him senseless and toothless because they suspected he was a police informer.

Although some call for more funds from the Netherlands, others say the problem lies in Curacao's open-door migration policy.

"It's the Latinos, they take our jobs and bring drugs to replace them," said retired bank worker Alex Soltero, 62. "This small community can't handle it. They shouldn't be allowed in."

Last year, Colombians constituted the largest immigrant group, with 640 registering as residents -- twice as many as in 2001. Citing the drug trade, the Netherlands Antilles this year started requiring Colombians to apply for tourist visas, a change criticized by Colombians seeking to escape their country's long-running guerrilla war.

"It hurts when people start discriminating," said Jenni Curiel, who arrived a decade ago and runs a Colombian folklore dance troupe. "The violence, the drugs -- it's giving my people a bad name."

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