PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - If they take power, the Haitian rebels closing in on this capital city are promising a new and more democratic era in this historically troubled and violent country.
But experts and diplomats say several of the top rebel leaders are former military and police officials who are suspected of major human-rights violations while in power and who have allegedly financed their insurgency with past profits from the drug trade.
That puts the would-be leaders on similar footing with the government of embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who U.S. officials and others say has allowed Haiti to become one of the region's most significant transit points for Colombian cocaine on its way to the United States.
Aristide has vehemently denied involvement in the drug trade, but others in his government have long been suspected by U.S. officials. The travel visas of at least six Aristide administration officials have been revoked by the United States in recent years because of suspected involvement with narcotics trafficking, according to diplomatic sources.
Over the years, rampant corruption among police has also taken its toll. As residents of the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, Haitian police and other law-enforcement officials have become easy targets for bribe-offering drug cartels, U.S. officials said.
"They were all on the payrolls," one senior U.S. law enforcement official said, adding, "There's nothing else to be involved in there if you want money."
The issue of alleged drug trafficking by the rebels and government officials in Haiti is a major policy concern for U.S. officials, who have long considered the war on drugs one of their priorities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
But as U.S. officials back away from Aristide, they risk helping to power a cadre of unsavory characters who may do little to stem the flow of cocaine and other illicit drugs into the United States, experts and diplomats say.
"There is absolutely nothing redeeming about these guys," said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti expert at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "They are a bunch of thugs. It's hard to imagine that the U.S. would want to support these guys back in power."
The two top rebel leaders have been suspected of involvement in the drug trade. Authorities in Haiti and elsewhere believe top commander Guy Philippe became involved in narcotics smuggling in the 1990s while he was a leading Haitian police official.
Philippe has denied in an interview that he ever participated in the drug trade.
The other commander in the insurgency, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, was a leader of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, a paramilitary group that killed hundreds of Aristide supporters after the 1991 military coup.
The group was allegedly bankrolled by former Haitian Police Chief Joseph Michel Francois, whom the United States indicted in 1997 on charges that he and six others ran a smuggling ring that shipped 33 tons of cocaine to the United States over a decade. Francois is a fugitive.
"We are not drug dealers," Chamblain said. "On the contrary, we are ready to help other countries fight drugs in Haiti."
Haiti's state institutions have long been weak because of the nation's devastated economy. And its now-crumbling police force and much of its political elite have been tainted by the cocaine trade, according to U.S. officials, experts and others.
Paul Simons, a top State Department anti-narcotics official, told reporters in Washington last fall that the United States was "very concerned about the situation with respect to drug-related corruption in Haiti," adding that the Aristide government "has done very little to cooperate with the United States to interdict the flow of drugs."
One senior U.S. law enforcement official said U.S. agents have seen uniformed Haitian police unloading planeloads of cocaine for traffickers. The official also alleged that drug corruption reaches "the highest levels of the government."
Last week, a Haitian drug dealer who pleaded guilty to shipping more than 30 tons of cocaine between Colombia and the United States alleged in a Miami courtroom that Haiti had become "a narco-country" under Aristide. The dealer, Beaudoin "Jacques" Ketant, was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
But Ira Kurzban, general counsel to the Haitian government and an Aristide adviser, said the allegations were part of a smear campaign designed to weaken and oust Haiti's leader.
He said Aristide has carried out a "major crackdown" on narcotics trafficking, including the arrest and extradition of Ketant. Kurzban said critics were exaggerating the problem.
"Is there a problem with drug trafficking? Certainly," he said. "Is it a major problem? No."
In a recent interview, Aristide said the rebels, not his government, were closely tied to the narcotics trade.
In a report in September, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration described Haiti as one of the region's "most significant trans-shipment countries" for Colombian cocaine on its way to the United States. The report also said a "significant amount of heroin and marijuana" is smuggled through Haiti.
The DEA said Haiti's attractiveness to South American drug lords rests in its strategic location, its uncontrolled borders and lengthy coastlines, along with a "lack of law enforcement resources." Haiti has no army, and its police force has about 3,500 members.
Colombian traffickers use single- or twin-engine planes to land at hidden airstrips in Haiti, or simply drop their loads to waiting ships or trucks, the DEA report said. Speedboats also remain a favorite method for smuggling cocaine into Haiti.
Once inside Haiti, Colombian cocaine is usually stored until it can be shipped to the United States or other markets, often in bulk cargo freighters sailing to Miami, the DEA said.
"Drug traffickers have a virtual field day in Haiti," said Bruce Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
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