CIA Probes Cuban Link to Drug Trade

By George Gedda
Associated Press Writer
Monday, August 16, 1999; 2:12 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Situated between south Florida and the South American cocaine and heroin belt, Cuba's skies and extensive territorial waters have been handy transit points for drug traffickers. That link now has the attention of CIA investigators.

Pressured by congressional critics of Cuban President Fidel Castro, the CIA will try to determine whether the United States was the ultimate destination of a shipment of cocaine that was scheduled to transit Cubans waters but instead was seized by Colombian police at the port of Cartagena last December.

Cuba has denied official involvement in any such activity. Indeed, Castro has declared his own war on drugs and has even invited the United States to join him in an anti-drug campaign so the two countries could become ``one of the greatest alliances against drug trafficking.''

Contrary to the Clinton administration's view, congressional critics say the evidence suggests an official Cuban role in supporting drug trafficking. They say Cuba qualifies under State Department criteria as a ``major'' drug transit country, citing the planned stop in Cuban waters of the abortive drug shipment in December.

An investigation of that shipment was carried out in February by staff members from two congressional committees. Of particular interest to them was whether the final destination for the shipment was the United States.

The staffers reported that a senior Drug Enforcement Administration official said ``in all likelihood the Dec. 3 shipment of cocaine to Cuba was eventually meant to transit through Mexico and on to the U.S.''

Cuba says the shipment was earmarked for Spain. The State Department initially agreed but now is not so sure. Earlier this month, the department asked the CIA to ``conduct an all-source review of intelligence community and law enforcement community data to shed further light on the ultimate destination of this shipment.''

A CIA finding that the shipment was intended to reach U.S. markets after passing through Cuban waters could lead to Cuba's placement on the ``majors'' list of drug-trafficking countries. Cuba would thus be subject, much like Colombia and Mexico, to a State Department evaluation on its anti-drug performance each year.

The campaign for Cuba's inclusion on the list is being led by Reps. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House International Relations Committee; and Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director, has acknowledged that traffickers have been making increased use of Cuban air space and territorial waters. But he noted that Cuba maintains it does not have the resources to patrol these large areas, especially its territorial waters.

``There is no conclusive evidence to indicate that Cuban leadership is currently involved in this criminal activity,'' McCaffrey said.

But Castro's detractors object even to the limited U.S.-Cuban anti-drug cooperation currently in place.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said it is preposterous for the administration to give Castro credibility on the drug issue because she contends the Cuban leader is notorious for helping traffickers. A fellow Cuban-born lawmaker, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., joined in the objection.

Inclusion on the ``majors'' list of drug-trafficking countries could be a potential stigma for Cuba and be used against the communist regime by its U.S. enemies, many of whom suspect the administration is seeking normal relations with the island.

Being on the list, now numbering 28 countries, does not imply that the government in question is working in league with the traffickers.

Countries found not cooperating with U.S. anti-drug efforts are ``decertified'' and can be subject to economic sanctions. This would not be a problem for Cuba since it already is under comprehensive sanctions.

Virtually all Andean countries plus Mexico are on the list. But as of the most recent State Department evaluation, all were ``certified'' as fully cooperating with U.S. counternarcotics efforts.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press