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Posted October 29, 2005
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Aristide Agonistes
Are U.S. officials working up to an indictment of the ex- president for alleged links to drug runners?

Ever since a nationwide rebellion forced Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to flee the impoverished island country in February 2004, federal prosecutors in Miami have systematically tracked down and imprisoned some of his top law-enforcement officials on money-laundering and drug-trafficking allegations. To date, the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of Florida has obtained the convictions of four former police officials ”including the former director of the Haitian National Police and the head of security at the presidential palace under Aristide” and a onetime senator belonging to the deposed Haitian president's Lavalas party on charges that they shook down prominent Colombian and Haitian traffickers for bribes. Earlier this month, prosecutors suffered a setback when a jury acquitted Aristide's former counternarcotics czar on similar allegations. But the U.S. Attorney's Office promptly issued a statement defending what it called "an aggressive approach to these cases" and vowing to "continue to pursue them." Which raises a pointed question: will federal prosecutors now seek an indictment of Aristide (putting former Haitian murderous dictator and druglord Aristide in tight handcuffs, whose job is that?)himself?

Spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney's Office have consistently declined to comment on recurring press reports that Aristide is a target of the federal grand jury that returned the indictments against his underlings. That tons of U.S.-bound cocaine moved through Haiti during Aristide's second term as president from 2001 to 2004 comes as no surprise: prior to his fall from power, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had listed Haiti among the top three drug-trafficking countries worldwide. But Aristide, exiled in South Africa, has consistently denied any personal knowledge of or involvement in narcotics trafficking or drug- related corruption. And no evidence has yet been presented in court that directly implicates him in such activity.

Still, in the trial that ended on Oct. 7, his presidential-palace security chief, Oriel Jean, appeared as a government witness and testified that Aristide personally approved issuing a palace identification badge to a Haitian businessman named Serge Edouard who was later convicted of drug trafficking. And according to a confidential DEA document, dated May 3, 1994, obtained by NEWSWEEK, allegations that Aristide accepted payments from drug traffickers date back to his first term as president in 1991.

In April 1994, DEA agents conducted a series of debriefings with a Colombian informant in the offices of the Colombian attorney general in Bogota. The informant, midlevel trafficker Juan Molina, who had abandoned the drug trade, told the DEA agents that Aristide had received two six-figure payments from representatives of the Medellin-cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. The first payment of $600,000 was allegedly made in December 1990 when Aristide was a candidate for the presidency of Haiti. The money was given in exchange for alleged assurances from Aristide that, should he win, the Medellin cartel could continue to use Haiti as a transshipment point for cocaine headed for the United States and other countries. A second payment of $250,000 was allegedly delivered by Molina himself to Aristide in June 1991, four months after he took office as president and three months before he was toppled in a military coup.

At the time of the DEA document, the Clinton administration was seeking a negotiated agreement with the generals who overthrew Aristide that would have allowed the Haitian president to return home from his exile in Washington. Nothing ever came of Molina's sensational accusations. A DEA request to interview Aristide at his home in Georgetown was turned down by the Justice Department since the informant's charges were uncorroborated.

A decade later, do the Feds have more to go on? At a sentencing hearing held in Miami only days before Aristide relinquished power in the winter of 2004, the convicted Haitian trafficker Jacques Ketant (his ultru-luxury mansion) claimed to have paid the president and Jean as much as $500,000 a month for permission to land cocaine-laden planes inside the country. During his testimony in Edouard's trial earlier this year, Jean said that the defendant had donated money to Aristide's private social-welfare foundation and stated that the palace security badge issued to Edouard effectively gave the kingpin virtual immunity from arrest inside Haiti. But Jean, who acknowledged receiving bribes from Edouard himself, also testified that Aristide was unaware of Jean's collaboration with the trafficker and got wind of it only when the president confronted Jean about the issue in 2003.

Eyebrows were raised in both Haiti and the United States when looters discovered $350,000 in cash in the basement of Aristide's private residence in Port-au-Prince on the day after the president fled the country. Aristide declined repeated requests from NEWSWEEK for an interview, but his attorney Ira Kurzban attributed all drug-related allegations implicating Aristide to what he called "a false, defamatory, disinformation campaign" by the Bush administration against his client. "President Aristide has never been involved in any illegal activity in Haiti," Kurzban said in a written statement. "The DEA's evidence against President Aristide consists solely of rumors from known or convicted drug dealers."

As Haiti prepares later this year to hold its first presidential election since Aristide's fall from power, the former president is a largely spent political force who appears likely to remain in exile for the foreseeable future. It is less certain whether he will ever wind up on the receiving end of a federal indictment.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted from NewsWeek International; October 24, 2005 issue.  

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