Beware fast boats bearing cocaine
Jettisoned drugs are swamping the economy of an island paradise.
On a tiny, paradisical island off Panama's Caribbean coast, a ragged sailboat lands at a jetty and two Kuna Indians sprint ashore carrying a 30kg package of cocaine. The wind rushes through the thatched huts; it sounds like the whole island is whispering conspiratorially.
The drugs were dumped from a rapid Colombian boat (right) scuppered by its captain when coastguards gave chase. Some days, such boats wash ashore."I was waiting for the coconut harvest when I saw this thing bobbing in the water," says a Kuna man. "I thought it was a monster, but when I looked closer I saw it was a motorboat. We sold the motors - a pair of 250 horsepower engines - to the police for $1,000. We hope to sell the boat soon," he says, eyes scanning the horizon.
The Kuna Yala archipelago comprises 365 islands, and is ruled by the Kuna Indians - a proud people who won independence from Panama following a bloody revolution in 1925. The women wear traditional clothing, with embroidered bodices and golden necklaces, their noses pierced with gold.
Their lifestyle has remained unchanged for centuries, but modern life is intruding as Colombian booty washes ashore. Most is sold, but some is consumed locally. It's a tropical Whisky Galore.
Two teenagers strut along the island's main street, baggy shorts flapping in the wind, ghetto-blaster thumping, their hip-hop stylings
clashing with the tropical torpor. They are snorting from an ounce bag of cocaine and are higher than the bin-bag kites their friends trail along.
After a few hits, they set off to dive for lobster. They may not return, says island medic Dr Murillo. "Cocaine gives the divers a boost," he says. "But some get arrogant and dive too deep. Several have drowned."
The haul I witness being brought ashore sells that night to visiting Colombian coastal traders, who pay $250,000 for 250kg. The street value is £15m. The next day, there's a party atmosphere and no one can change even a $5 bill. I flee on the next plane.Then, three days later, my guide calls me. Can I lend him $20? I balk. The Colombians had tricked the Kuna with forged notes. They failed to notice, their only light coming from tiny kerosene jam-jar lamps inside their thatched huts.
By Mike Power