MALPASSE, HAITI — Three beefy men wearing wraparound sunglasses and gold chains leaned against their SUV at this remote border crossing with the Dominican Republic. As one of them muttered into a walkie-talkie, four Haitian policemen pulled up looking like they meant business.
The SUV's back hatch was opened. The cops eyeballed its load of opaque-plastic-wrapped bundles. One officer picked up a package the size of a bread loaf, appraising its weight with his forearm.
Then the police and the gold-bedecked trio knocked fists in solidarity, traded vehicles and drove off toward the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. And thus ended the drug bust that wasn't.
Endemic police corruption in Haiti is just one reason drug-running through Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, has more than doubled over the last two years. It accounts for more than 10% of illegal substances reaching the United States and an even larger share of the volume destined for Europe, U.S. and international agents say.
With counter-narcotics operations choking off traditional routes from Colombia and Mexico, smugglers are finding unfettered paths in lawless Haiti, where poverty, isolation and inept law enforcement combine to provide traffickers a new path of least resistance.
"Why are they bringing it here? Because this is the weakest point in the region," said Fred Blaise, a Haitian-born Florida police officer serving in Haiti with the United Nations Stabilization Mission.
"Haiti doesn't have helicopters. It doesn't have planes. It doesn't have radar to even know what's coming and going."
A fledgling coast guard has been restored after a four-year hiatus that followed the flight into exile of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the chaos that ensued. But the force has few officers and no speedboats. The 1,500-mile coastline is wide open to smugglers' so-called go-fast boats and airdrops.
"It takes only eight hours for speedboats coming from Colombia and Venezuela to get to Jacmel," Haiti's police commissioner, Mario Andresol, said of the southern port town of dilapidated gingerbread houses. "Once the drugs get to Haiti, they can be loaded onto vehicles and sent to Port-au-Prince, then north for the trip to the United States."
Haiti has no army or border guard to patrol the 225-mile frontier with the Dominican Republic. At best, a couple of police officers are sometimes on hand at the four legal crossings.
From Malpasse, contraband can be dispatched across the enormous saltwater Lake Azuei in fishermen's crude, black-sailed sloops, in all-terrain vehicles that speed over denuded mountainsides into gang-ruled central and northern cities, or loaded into dump trucks at a roadside quarry that is abandoned but for the transactions that traffickers make little attempt to hide.
Much of Colombia's cocaine now comes to the southern coast of Hispaniola via Venezuela. Last year, then-U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said the volume flowing through Venezuela had quintupled since 2001 to as much as 250 tons a year. That's a quarter to half of Colombia's production.
The Joint Interagency Task Force of the U.S. military's Southern Command tracked 81 unregistered flights from Colombia or Venezuela to this island in the first nine months of 2007. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that more vigorous surveillance of the Colombian coastline has compelled highly adaptive smugglers to use new routes.
"There is always the balloon effect," said Vito S. Guarino, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's Caribbean Division. "Wherever you put pressure, they go somewhere else."
He estimates that drug transshipment through the Caribbean is up as much as 30%.
The drug shipments are split into small packages and smuggled to the U.S. primarily aboard container vessels or the small go-fast boats, and on occasion are carried by drug mules on commercial flights.
Haitian or Dominican authorities are often tipped off about illegal flights and voyages that have been spotted by the U.S. or other nations, but local law enforcement officials are rarely in a position to intercept them.
"We don't have a single vessel that can go to Ile-a-Vache," Andresol said, speaking of an island off the southwest coast that is a favored drop transfer point.
Haitian farmers and fishermen in coastal villages can be induced with a few dollars to store drugs, guard makeshift warehouses or cart the contraband to the next stop on the route, spawning local economies that are increasingly dependent on the drug trade, the police commissioner said.
Narco-trafficking enterprises already are entrenched in central Haiti, having cropped up along the one passable road from the capital to the northern coast.