WORLD

THE PERILS OF PARADISE

MAUREEN SHERIDAN February 17 1997
WORLD

THE PERILS OF PARADISE

MAUREEN SHERIDAN February 17 1997

THE PERILS OF PARADISE

WORLD

MAUREEN SHERIDAN

For Linda, a 19-year-old Toronto welfare recipient, an all-expenses-paid week’s holiday in a luxurious Jamaican villa, plus $2,000 cash, was too tempting to refuse. That she was expected to strap six pounds of hash oil to her body and carry it back to Canada seemed irrelevant at the time. But more than a year later, as she sat in a stiflingly hot visitors’ cubicle at a Kingston prison, the deal no longer looked so sweet. “That promised week in paradise turned into 14 months in hell,” she sighed.

Linda, who did not want her real name used, is one of about 60 Canadian tourists, and 1,000 foreign visitors overall, arrested in Jamaica each year for attempting to smuggle drugs out of the country. “Most of them are young, financially strapped females,” says David Martinez, a consular officer at the Canadian High Commission. “They are easy prey for drug traffickers who recruit in bars and welfare offices with promises of good times and Kingston prison; easy money. What they’re never smoking ganja: told is what happens when jailed tourists things go wrong.”

Things went very wrong for Linda when, just as she was about to board an Air Canada plane home, she felt a tap on her shoulder. “I knew right away I’d been caught,” she recalls. She figures Jamaican airport security spotted her “very nervous” demeanor and difficulty walking—the oil was taped very tightly to her badly sunburned body. Until the mid-1980s, smugglers easily slipped out of Jamaica with their loot. Then, Washington, intent on curbing drug imports at the source, tied economic aid to airport checks, and U.S. drug enforcement agents arrived to advise Jamaican authorities as they cracked down. But for many naïve foreigners, the image—incorrect, in fact—of a relaxed attitude towards drugs popularized by singers like late reggae star Bob Marley is the one that stuck.

The number of Canadian drug-carrying “mules” is hard to measure, but Jamaican authorities estimate that about one-third are stopped before leaving the island. Lillian Crichton, honorary Canadian consul and a former Air Canada supervisor who is on call to go to Montego Bay airport, confirms the high rate of capture. “We have an arrest every four or five days,” she says. “Most are amazed that it has happened to them.”

For the mules, getting caught is just the beginning. Jamaican law has no bail provision for foreigners, so they face immediate imprisonment. From the airport, suspects are taken to the local “lockup” where they are held, pending a hearing, for an average of two weeks. Jail conditions have been condemned by Amnesty International and other human rights groups. Originally built to hold four people, Montego Bay’s holding cells often bulge with up to 20 detainees at a time. Toilet facilities often are no more than a seldom-emptied communal bucket. Washing consists of a weekly hosing-down; food is barely edible. “Reality really hits when they see the cells,” Crichton

says of the Canadian detainees.

Convictions are on the rise. Most cases involve marijuana in amounts ranging from one rolled “spliff” to 150 lb. In the past, some Canadians paid fines ranging from $2,000 to $15,000 and returned home, only to come back a few months later intent on doing the same thing again. But a year ago, Jamaica instituted a mandatory jail sentence of six to 12 months for marijuana trafficking, and I there are harsher punishments § for the increasing incidence of cocaine and hash smuggling. In some I cases, prisoners’ families cannot come I up with money to pay the fine—they also have to fund the airfare back to Canada— x so the inmate must serve extra time. And i the methods of the trade can be deadly: four Canadians have died on their trip home after ingested condoms filled with cocaine ruptured.

Recruiters in Canada are well-organized professionals who know their targets and have close contacts in Jamaica. “The people who set you up are only there if you deliver,” says Linda. “If you’re caught, you never hear from them again. They’ve already set up the next run.” Jamaican police rarely follow up with their Canadian counterparts to catch the masterminds back in Toronto or Montreal.

At Fort Augusta, Kingston’s barren jail for women, the sun-baked pink faces of foreigners provide a stark contrast to the local majority of inmates as they jostle for a place in the shade of a solitary tree in the prison yard. Prison superintendent Adina Bruff points out that in addition to Canadians like Linda, there are American, British, German and Colombian inmates. Walking about in their candy-striped cotton uniforms, they have plenty of time to think about how things are not the way they seemed when Bob Marley was around.