Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS: Jamaicans Angry at Tabloid Spin on Drug Smuggling

Dionne Jackson Miller

MONTEGO BAY, May 10 2002 (IPS) - An article in a London newspaper highlighting the problem of drug smuggling from Jamaica has unleashed angry responses, with critics saying the island has been unfairly cast in an ugly light.

The story, published in the mass circulation tabloid Daily Mirror on Wednesday, gave a first person account of a trip aboard an Air Jamaica flight from Kingston to London’s Heathrow Airport. British law enforcement authorities had targeted both flights from Jamaica that night for a special operation aimed at picking up drug smugglers.

Intense questioning at immigration, exhaustive checks to verify the London addresses given by each passenger, and the use of high-tech equipment to check every piece of luggage for drugs were among the techniques used by the police, the Mirror reported.

Of the passengers booked on the two flights that night, from Kingston and Montego Bay, 42 were refused entry at the airports because they were said to be known criminals, were travelling on false passports, or had given false addresses for their stay in the United Kingdom, the paper said.

Ten never reached London, because Jamaican police arrested them on drug charges, 11 were found to have swallowed cocaine, six others had drugs on them, and another five had drugs hidden in their belongings.

The story deals with well-known problem in Jamaica: how to stop the hundreds of persons willing to risk their lives and liberty for the money they can make smuggling drugs into other countries.

The government estimates that up to 100 tonnes of cocaine are shipped through Jamaica each year, although it is unclear how much of that is carried by personal couriers, known as drug couriers or mules.

Last year, Jamaican police intercepted 406 couriers bound for Britain, but emphasise they do not know how many got away.

Still, some Jamaicans feel that the article’s headline, ‘On Board with Cocaine Air’, and its exclusive focus on Air Jamaica and passengers from the island, was an unfair attack on the tourism-dependent island and its national airline.

The Jamaican High Commissioner to London, David Muirhead, said he was also concerned about the article’s timing.

“The High Commission is most distressed that this article should have been published at this time,” said Muirhead, adding that the government, particularly the minister of national security, has “been making efforts and putting legislation into place to combat this drug trafficking”.

A team from Jamaica, headed by National Security Minister Peter Phillips, has just returned from visits to Columbia and Canada to drum up support for its anti-drug programmes.

Since taking office last year, Phillips has also announced new crime fighting initiatives, plans to improve intelligence gathering capabilities and equipment for local security forces, and has sought more assistance from foreign governments to fight drug trafficking.

These efforts, coupled with the government’s plans to acquire sophisticated drug detection equipment for Jamaican airports, should also have been highlighted, said Muirhead.

Tourism officials are upset about what they say is further damage to Jamaica’s already fragile image in the marketplace, while the management of Air Jamaica called the article blatantly biased.

“The image of Air Jamaica that has been portrayed in the article is one of us being Cocaine Air. That shows us as a second rate, banana republic carrier and we’re not that, we’re first world,” said Air Jamaica CEO Christopher Zacca.

The airline has a comprehensive and thorough approach to security, and meets all government regulations, he added.

Air Jamaica is also concerned about the article’s possible effects on its business. It now flies to Heathrow nine times a week and is scheduled to begin two weekly flights to Manchester later this month.

The article’s author, Mirror chief crime reporter Jeff Edwards, spent several hours on Jamaican radio stations Thursday and Friday defending his story..

Edwards says that it is London airport officials who refer to the flights as Cocaine Express or Air Cocaine, that he had no intention to target Air Jamaica, and that the story was meant to focus on a specific problem and a special security operation.

“This is a serious issue, and the British press has largely ignored this issue,” he said. “We have seen an unprecedented rise in gun crime in London, but also in most other big cities.”

“There’ve been some truly horrific events taking place in broad daylight, and what is clear is that it’s a very specific problem that revolves around the distribution of crack cocaine, and that’s the cocaine that’s being trafficked in London from Jamaica by these so-called drug mules.”

The problems lie not with one airline, he says, but with the law enforcement officials in both Jamaica and London who are supposed to be catching the smugglers.

Jamaican police admit they have inadequate resources to detect what they believe to be increasing numbers of drug couriers. Until the promised new sophisticated equipment arrives, they have been relying on personal observations and profiling to detect suspected couriers.

But police also maintain that it is inaccurate to suggest that one airline is used more extensively than others, as statistics only reflect drug smugglers that are caught.

Of the 406 couriers detected going to London last year, 176 were found on Air Jamaica, 186 on British Airways, and over 40 on several other charter airlines, say police.

Until May 7 this year, Jamaican police seized 155 couriers from Air Jamaica flights and 79 who tried to board British Airways flights to London.

But as the government and Air Jamaica do damage control, many citizens are becoming increasingly concerned that drug smuggling and publicity such as this will increase the possibility of law-abiding citizens being detained while travelling to London, simply because they hold Jamaican passports.

To some extent, as the Mirror article illustrates, that is already the case..

Arriving in London last month, Sophia Haughton was made to wait along with scores of other passengers for 11 hours before being allowed to leave the airport, while authorities searched bags, carried out body searches on some passengers, and then checked toilets after the passengers had used them.

“No one said anything. You just saw them passing with the dogs, and some of the females and males were getting body searched,” says Haughton. “I didn’t get searched. I was just put there to sit down for 11 long hours,” she says.

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