Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Tribe's new enemy: cocaine traffickers

The Hamilton Spectator

For 500 years the fiercely independent Kuna people of Panama have fought off everything from conquistadors to tourism pushers. Now they face an interloper that threatens them with the scourge of addiction.

ACHUTUPO, PANAMA (Jan 10, 2006)

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 reach 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 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, which are crammed with bamboo-sided, thatch-roofed huts. The women are known for gaily coloured 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, few cares 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.

The 320-kilometre-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, 13-metre fiberglass boats outfitted with a trio of 200-horsepower engines and guided by satellite positioning systems.

The boats can carry up to two tonnes of cocaine, typically in 20-kilo watertight packages.

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

The so-called go-fast boats make surreptitious refuelling stops on the high seas or along the Caribbean coast and have proved elusive to U.S. and Panamanian authorities. They are difficult to track and intercept because their speeds reach 130 km/h and they travel at night.

Officials say they've 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 tonnes 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 18 to 25 are now addicts, said Galindo Morales, who works at this island's health clinic.

"The addiction problem is on the rise," said Dr. Edison Murillo, who runs a hospital on the neighbouring Aligandi island.

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

Anthropologist Stanley Heckadon, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, suggests a reason for rising drug use and trafficking was the 1999 transfer of the Panama Canal from the U.S. 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," he said. "Suddenly the bases were shut and men who had a good income now don't have a job but 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.

Terrified, elders then made an almost unheard-of appeal to the Panamanian government for police protection. For a time, 40 police officers stood guard over the island waiting for the reprisal from drug runners. Today, four remain on watch.

In a meeting with Candanedo in November, Kuna elders said they would permit construction of two Panamanian naval installations on their land to fight drug traffickers, tribal security chief Adelberto Heredo said.

Meanwhile, drug use has begun to tear at the Kunas' social fabric. Tribal elder Brines Morales said Kuna youth were shunning customs such as the making and tasting of chicha, an alcoholic beverage brewed from sugar cane several times a year to mark rites of passage.

At the next tribal council meeting this spring, Panama's tourism minister, salsa singer and actor Ruben Blades, is expected to renew a government pitch for the Kuna to open the islands to outside developers.

Among the proponents is Murillo, director of the Aligandi clinic, who thinks it would "generate revenue and people would have access to the food they need."

But Heckadon is doubtful the tribe will roll out the red carpet, saying, "The Kuna have held on to their land for 500 years, and they will hold on to it for the next 500 years."


Blogger Kayaboy said...

This article was particularly moving for me. Here you have this tribe of people living their lives as they have for hundreds of years only to have the United States' war on drugs infest the area with cut-throat, low-life scumbags intent on making as much money as they possibly can.

1/10/2006 02:08:00 PM  

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