This story originally appeared in the Miami Herald on July 20, 2007.
Launched from the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, a secret U.S. mission to seize an alleged Haitian drug trafficker who helped topple former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a bust.
But the dramatic, military-like raid to capture Guy Philippe, conducted with four Black Hawk helicopters and two jets, has already sparked panic among drug traffickers, politicians and police officers being targeted in a new crackdown on Haiti as a narcotics hub for Colombian cocaine.
Monday’s predawn raid by helicopter-borne agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration targeted Philippe’s rural home.
Philippe — a former top Haitian police official, a leader of the 2004 rebellion against Aristide, a presidential candidate in 2006, and who has been under a sealed U.S. indictment for drug trafficking since late 2005 — is now in hiding.
“While the recent crackdown didn’t get Guy Philippe, the operation is a positive sign the DEA and Haitian government are working together, “ said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who visited Haiti in January to push the government there to step up its counter-drug efforts.
About one-tenth of all the cocaine hitting U.S. streets now flows through Hispaniola — the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic — or double the rate of two years ago.
The raid’s failure angered Haitian President René Préval, who had to work hard to persuade his minister of justice to allow the U.S. agents to capture Philippe and other drug suspects on Haitian territory, according to well-informed U.S. and foreign officials who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the case.
“The president was very upset, “ said a foreign official based in Haiti. Added one Haitian law enforcement official: “If they had planned this operation fully with us, they would have had him.”
In Monday’s raid, more than a dozen heavily armed DEA and Haitian antidrug agents surrounded Philippe’s yellow, two-story gated home in the hills above Les Cayes, on Haiti’s remote southern peninsula. Nearby witnesses said two masked agents stood on the roof of the house and descended on ropes. They said Philippe, 39, heard the helicopters and ran to a nearby village, from where he watched the search for him.
The former rebel leader is wanted on a Nov. 22, 2005, indictment charging him with conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and money laundering while he was a police official, according to law enforcement officials and others familiar with the case.
His group of handpicked police officers allegedly provided security for Colombian cocaine shipments as they were transferred to traffickers in Haiti for export to the United States, according to law enforcement sources.
Philippe has always denied any wrongdoing. He is one of dozens of Haitian police officers, politicians and traffickers targeted by U.S. authorities in recent years. Many of them were convicted in federal court in Miami and are serving lengthy prison sentences.
On Monday, in parallel raids, DEA agents and Haitian police arrested three other suspects indicted in Miami:
▪ Laveaux Francois: Allegedly led an organization out of the city of Gonaives that transported cocaine from Haiti to the United States between 2004 and 2006.
▪ Raynald St. Pierre: A former police official who allegedly coordinated protection for the cocaine shipments passing through Haiti.
▪ Bernard Piquion: Taken from jail, he was arrested on May 31 by Haitian police who found 420 kilos of cocaine and several weapons in his caravan of vehicles.
One other suspect who was supposed to have been arrested Monday but remains at large: Michel Frantz Jeanty. He had been arrested in Haiti in 2004, but allegedly paid a $40,000 bribe to be allowed to escape.
DEA officials and the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami declined to comment.
The DEA’s military-style mission to capture Philippe also signaled increased cooperation from President Préval, who only months ago was accusing the United States of fueling the narcotics trade as a consumer country.
“Préval has been more cooperative, and we’ve been more aggressive, “ said one U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the situation in Haiti. “We’re doing things differently in Haiti.”
Préval has been under withering pressure from the U.S. government. But he also fears that traffickers have been infiltrating his government, and perhaps even have been financing his political enemies.
“The narco-traffickers have money [and they can afford] to buy judges, policemen, ministers, parliamentarians, “ Préval told a group of Miami-Dade officials in Port-au-Prince earlier this month.
“We need to give other models to our youths because young people now say, ‘Why should I go to school since money is with the people who are trafficking drugs?’ “ he said. “They see that drug traffickers are all over. We need to change that.”
Préval also is increasingly worried that traffickers are seeking to destabilize his government with bribes and by running for political office. For instance, Philippe, who ran for president in 2006, is among a handful of possible candidates for parliamentary elections expected late this year.
“There is a concern about the effort by those individuals to use the electoral process to provide them with some protection, “ said Mark Schneider, who tracks Haitian issues for the International Crisis Group, a Washington, D.C.-based independent think tank.
In a report released Wednesday, the group called on the United States to continue supporting antidrug efforts in Haiti by training and vetting Haitian police antidrug agents and basing two helicopters in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Schneider said the renewed U.S. targeting of Haitian traffickers sends a clear message:
“We are serious about this. We are going to take some action that is going to reflect the priority Préval has enunciated — you’ve been put on notice.”