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Tourism, Drug Smuggling Blight Lifestyle

English-speaking descendants of slaves populate Caribbean isle, governed by Colombia. Mainlanders are viewed with suspicion.

June 08, 2003|Andrew Selsky | Associated Press Writer

OLD PROVIDENCE ISLAND, Colombia — The hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" drifts through the open windows of a wooden church perched above a turquoise bay. It is a scene that could have played out a century ago on this Caribbean island.

First settled by Puritans in 1630, then used as an outpost by pirates and now inhabited mostly by descendants of slaves who speak English as their first language, Old Providence seems forgotten by time.

Island music, played with a washtub bass, jawbone of a horse, fiddle and mandolin, recalls buccaneer ballads blended with calypso.

But the modern world -- tourism and drug smuggling -- is intruding on Old Providence, an island about the size of Manhattan that is 300 miles north of the Colombian mainland.

"The people that come to this island need to respect our culture and our way of being," said Francisco Bent, pastor of the bayside church.

The target of Bent's ire: Spanish-speaking police and marines from the mainland, whom many of the 5,000 islanders view with suspicion and resentment.

"They think that because they have a gun at their side, they can trample and abuse," Bent said. "We islanders are a respectful people. We don't manipulate arms."

Old Providence -- called Providencia by mainlanders -- has a history of defiance. The first slave revolt in the English colonies occurred here, in 1638. The rebellion was crushed, but some of the participants fled and joined other escaped slaves in the island's rugged interior.

A Spanish invasion ousted the English Puritans in 1641, and some islanders wish that the winds of history had taken a different tack. They say Old Providence could just as easily be flying the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes instead of the Colombian flag.

"Tell Bush to take us over. He should forget about Iraq and come here," Ulette Barker, an elementary school principal in the village of Bottom House, said only half-jokingly. Teachers, taking a break from meetings with parents on a recent hot morning, nodded in agreement.

Nicaragua, which lies 110 miles to the west, would like the winds to shift too. It has gone to the International Court of Justice to claim ownership of Old Providence and a cluster of nearby islands and keys.

Nicaragua argues that when it ceded the archipelago to Colombia in a 1928 treaty, it did so under duress because Nicaragua was then occupied by U.S. Marines who were helping the conservative government battle a leftist insurrection.

The territorial dispute prompted the Colombian military to step up its presence near the archipelago. Nicaragua's government charges that Colombian navy vessels have been intercepting and capturing Nicaraguan fishing boats off the Nicaraguan coast.

But Colombian police and soldiers are also focusing on Old Providence because it lies on a route used by smugglers to ship cocaine from the mainland across the Caribbean, into the Gulf of Mexico and on to Mexico and the United States.

Smugglers reportedly sometimes buy fuel -- at high prices -- from islanders who transport the gasoline in their fishing boats to smuggling craft offshore.

On April 9, 2002, islander Lemos Lee Robinson Archbold set off before dawn in his open-air boat with a spear gun, dive mask and fins.

As the 33-year-old fisherman motored in the darkness past Manchineel Bay, near the southeastern tip of Old Providence, a joint force of marines and police laying in wait opened fire, hitting Archbold in the chest and killing him.

Neither drugs nor extra gasoline were found in his boat. The anti-drug force claimed that Archbold shot first and said they returned fire in self-defense.

His brother, Alirio, dismisses the account. "I think they thought the first boat that would come in would have drugs," he said. "They opened fire and thought they would find a smuggler and drugs aboard."

Alirio said his brother was headed to a dive shop to get air tanks to fish off the island just as dawn broke.

"It's illegal to fish with air tanks, so he was going out there at first light to avoid getting caught," Alirio said at his mother's wooden house, the windows open for the afternoon breeze.

Islanders are still angry about the death. Ralph Newball, then-governor of the archipelago, issued a proclamation saying the father of two young sons "was cruelly killed."

Lt. Col. Gloria Stella Quintero Velez, police commander for the archipelago, wrote Archbold's mother expressing condolences and pledging a full investigation. A year later, the investigation is continuing, authorities say.

Meanwhile, on nearby San Andres -- the biggest island in the archipelago -- a police officer fatally shot a 13-year-old island girl in February when the motorcycle on which she was a passenger turned away from a police checkpoint. The driver was trying to evade the checkpoint because he didn't have the cycle's registration with him.

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