Aristide Agonistes; Are U.S. Officials Working Up to an Indictment of the Ex-President for Alleged Links to Drug Runners?

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Byline: Joseph Contreras

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 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. …