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By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
U.S. officials explore whether drug corruption went all the way to the office of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
MIAMI - In a farewell speech in July, shortly before leaving Haiti, former U.S. Ambassador Brian Dean Curran told an audience that Haiti had become corrupted by drug traffickers.
"Parents of Haiti, wake up," he said, in remarks to the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce. "I don't understand what has become of the moral values of this society," he went on, complaining about the lack of cooperation in denouncing the traffickers.
Eight months later, and barely a month after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide abandoned power and fled into exile, federal prosecutors in Miami are investigating his alleged drug ties. An indictment on drug charges could be only months away, according to Bush administration and Justice Department officials.
In addition, Florida courts have recently witnessed a series of drug indictments against major traffickers in Haiti, as well as a senior Haitian government official.
Court documents and interviews with several U.S. officials reveal that drug trafficking in Haiti, which has served as a conduit for Colombian cocaine for many years, rose after the election of Aristide in 2000. U.S. officials became increasingly concerned about the degree of drug corruption in Haiti and the high levels it had reached within the government.
"It is just a totally different world," Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Younjae Kim told a Miami court Oct. 21 in a hearing involving one of the Haitian trafficking suspects. "The level of corruption goes from a lowly patrolman all the way to the top of the Haitian National Police."
Officials at the DEA, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Justice Department are now asking if it went higher than that. Senior-level discussions in Washington were held to consider the pros and cons of a drug indictment last year, officials say.
But the Bush administration was concerned that a drug indictment might derail Washington's political leverage with Aristide on policies affecting key U.S. interests, especially Haiti's continued cooperation in restricting the illegal migration of Haitian refugees.
Officials also recognized that as a sitting head of state, Aristide enjoyed immunity from prosecution under well-established international legal doctrine.
In the end, officials ultimately concluded that they did not have "a clear-cut" case against Aristide, despite plenty of circumstantial evidence. But a series of incidents and arrests in the last eight months has may have altered that picture.
While officials were unwilling to discuss the case against Aristide publicly, intense activity by federal agents involved in investigating Haitian traffickers, as well as court records, strongly suggest that evidence may be building against the one-time populist priest.
Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer who represents Aristide, denied the former president had any dealings with drug traffickers: "I don't think Aristide would have taken drug money. It's just not Aristide."
But drug experts and lawyers in Miami point to the arrest in the last 10 months of half a dozen prominent drug traffickers in Haiti, several of whom have signed plea bargains and are cooperating with the government.
One of those men, Carlos Ovalle, a longtime Colombian trafficker who lived in Haiti, pleaded guilty in an Ocala court last November to two counts of drug trafficking and money laundering in a Lake County DEA sting operation.
In a major breakthrough, one of Haiti's most wanted traffickers, Beaudouin "Jacques" Ketant, was captured last year by the DEA. After being brought to Miami, he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in return for a sentence reduction.
Also assisting prosecutors is a senior former Haitian police chief implicated in drug trafficking, Rudi Therassan, who began cooperating with the DEA in April last year while still employed by the police in Haiti. He has since been brought to Miami under federal protection.
Therassan allegedly was involved in the murder last year of Ketant's brother, Hector Ketant, during a disputed drug deal. Ketant says Therassan insisted on being cut in on a 1,540-pound planeload of Colombian cocaine that had been personally authorized by Aristide.
U.S. officials investigating the Haitian drug trade got a further boost last month when Canadian police arrested Oriel Jean, the former chief of security at the Presidential Palace, and one of Aristide's most trusted officials.
After he agreed to waive extradition proceedings, Jean was flown to Miami where he faces drug trafficking charges. It was Aristide's refusal to fire Jean two years ago, despite strong evidence of his ties to drug money, that made U.S. officials begin to seriously suspect the president.
Jean was one of six senior Haitian police officers allegedly linked to drugs that the United States pressed Aristide to fire. The U.S. Embassy withdrew Jean's visa in 2002 and tipped Aristide to the evidence of his drug dealing. But Jean remained in his job until Aristide's Feb. 29 resignation.
Despite the mounting circumstantial evidence against Aristide, the legal case against him remains uncertain, in large part because Aristide, currently in Jamaica with his family, doesn't fit the bill of the typical drug-tainted dictator with a lavish lifestyle and secret bank accounts.
"He has no money. He left with the clothes on his back," said Kurzban, the attorney.
But federal agents and prosecutors are looking closely into Aristide's personal finances. They are particularly interested in the discovery last month of an estimated $350,000 in cash in a safe in a secret, underground basement chamber at Aristide's private residence in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Looters found the money the day after Aristide fled the country.
DEA agents have interviewed at least one of the people who found the cash - in stacks of rotting $100 bills - and are considering bringing the stash and the looters' family to Miami. U.S. officials want to know if the money can be connected to drug payoffs allegedly made by traffickers to Aristide.
Diplomats who observed Aristide closely say that while he did not appear to have lived in great luxury, he needed large amounts of money to run a political system based largely on corrupt patronage. That dependency became more acute after his government was cut off from official international lenders following the fraudulent 2000 elections.
"After the embargo, drugs became the only way (for Aristide) to tap into large financial resources," said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. "In a small economy like Haiti's, a small amount of drugs can make a huge difference."
While Aristide did not display the trappings of enormous wealth, he seemed to leave known traffickers alone. Despite facing charges in the United States, and being featured in September 2001 on the program America's Most Wanted, Ketant, for example, "continued to traffic in massive quantities of illegal drugs while living openly and lavishly on his narcotics proceeds," according to court documents.
He drove around the posh Vivi Michel suburb of the capital in a Humvee and held parties at his hillside villa, according to U.S. and Haitian officials.
He was arrested last June. After pleading guilty in Miami to two counts of trafficking cocaine, he was sentenced to 27 years in jail Feb.25 - and fined $15-million.
A cooperation deal with U.S. authorities went sour after prosecutors accused him of lying about his illegal assets, including a safe supposedly containing $5-million and a collection of 200 valuable paintings.
At his sentencing, Ketant angrily accused Aristide of betraying him to the DEA, complaining that the pair had been partners in the drug business. U.S. officials are investigating whether Aristide protected Ketant for six years after his 1997 indictment on drug charges in the United States.
Ketant says he paid Aristide a $500,000 monthly retainer to land drug flights from Colombia on Route 9, a major highway near Aristide's home and one of the few pieces of straight, unpotholed tarmac in the country.
The judge in the case suggested that Ketant was not worthy of a sentence reduction because he was guilty of corrupting Haitian officials.
"Your honor, to suggest that my client corrupted government officials," retorted his attorney Ruben Oliva, "is like suggesting that a parish priest converted the Vatican to Catholicism."
- Times researcher Kitty Bennett assisted in preparing this report. David Adams can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org[Last modified April 3, 2004, 01:20:39]
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