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A New Foe Threatens Tribe's Independent Spirit

The scourge of addiction grows as drug shipments are dumped along the Kunas' land in Panama.

January 03, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

ACHUTUPO, Panama — After keeping the world at bay for five centuries, the Kuna Indians on Panama's unspoiled Caribbean coast now confront an insidious intruder: cocaine traffickers.

The fiercely independent tribe inhabits Kuna Yala, a semiautonomous area that includes a coastal strip and the San Blas islands. The region is known mainly to foreign eco-tourists who can afford to get to its isolated white sand beaches.

The Kuna have fought off incursions by Spanish conquistadors, rubber growers, gold miners and, most recently, tourism promoters who ply them with a steady stream of resort proposals. But they jealously protect their sovereignty, won after a bloody uprising in 1925. Today, the tribe permits no outside ownership of its land.

The Kuna control nearly 400 picture-postcard islands but inhabit fewer than 50 of them, which are crammed with bamboo-sided, thatch-roofed huts. The women are known for gaily colored dresses and for their embroidered molas, or tapestries, a coveted souvenir. Men spend the day fishing, gathering coconuts and catching lobsters

"Foreigners often view the Kuna as simple mola makers with hardly a care in the world, but it is they who decide when and if outsiders, including Panamanian police and other authorities, can enter their lands," said Scott Doggett, author of Lonely Planet's Panama guide.

In the last few years, however, the Kuna have faced an interloper that has proved difficult to fend off -- and has brought the scourge of addiction.

The 200-mile-long Kuna lands lie just south of a transit route for Colombian drugs on their way to the U.S. market, much of them stowed aboard sleek, 40-foot fiberglass boats often outfitted with a trio of 200-horsepower engines and guided by satellite positioning systems. The boats can carry up to 2 tons of cocaine, typically in 40-pound watertight packages.

A consequence of the increasing drug traffic is that ever larger amounts of drugs wash ashore here, having been dumped by drug runners to avoid detection or to be picked up by associates. The cocaine then gets sold or used locally.

The so-called go-fast boats make surreptitious refueling stops on the high seas or along the Caribbean coast and have proved elusive to U.S. and Panamanian authorities trying to stem the flow of drugs. They are difficult to track and intercept because their speeds reach 80 mph and they travel at night.

Officials who run the joint U.S.-Panamanian drug interdiction program say they have had success recently in catching some of the boats. This nation's top anti-drug prosecutor, Patricio Candanedo, said that in 2005, Panama seized 35 tons of cocaine in seaborne raids, nearly four times as much as in 2004.

One American official said the anti-drug efforts have been helped by a U.S. gift of several go-fast boats that Panamanian law enforcers now use to chase down the drug runners.

But the surveillance has pushed drug boats' skippers to run closer to Kuna Yala shores, so they can ditch their boats and cargo on shorter notice.

And that has increased the incidence of what the locals call "ocean jackpots," or the recovery by Kuna tribesmen of cocaine that is then distributed locally. On some islands, up to half of Kuna men between 18 and 25 are now addicts, said pharmacist assistant Galindo Morales, who works at this island's health clinic.

"The addiction problem is on the rise," said Dr. Edison Murillo, who directs a hospital on the neighboring island of Aligandi.

Kuna Yala's idyllic surroundings mask several health problems among the 60,000 members of the tribe, he said, including AIDS, malnutrition and tuberculosis, in addition to drug abuse.

Anthropologist Stanley Heckadon of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City hypothesized that a possible reason for rising drug use and trafficking among the Kuna was the 1999 transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama as well as the closing of several U.S. military bases, which left up to 3,000 tribe members without jobs.

"The Kuna had a long history working for the canal administration and the U.S. military as painters, busboys and cooks," Heckadon said. "Suddenly the bases were shut, and men who had a good income before now don't have a job but still a family to support."

Residents still talk about an incident over the summer that brought home the risks of being close to a narcotics shipping lane. After a boat loaded with a ton of cocaine beached on the mainland in June with mechanical problems, the skipper asked a fisherman to stand guard over the cargo for a day or two.

Instead, the Kuna tribesman sold it to traffickers in Colon for $700,000, according to several island sources. Traffickers came back days later to find their merchandise gone and threatened the entire population of Achutupo with death unless they returned the cocaine.

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