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LEADER'S DOWNFALL

Drug allegation gave US leverage on Aristide

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- An accusation in a Miami courtroom last week that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was personally involved in drug-trafficking apparently gave the United States more leverage to persuade Aristide to leave the country, diplomats in Haiti said yesterday.

The allegation was made Wednesday by Haitian Beaudoin "Jacques" Ketant, a convicted drug-trafficker and a former Aristide confidant, as he was sentenced to a 27-year prison term in federal court in Florida.

Aristide's lawyer angrily denied the allegation, saying Ketant was trying to save himself by making unfounded accusations against Aristide. And the United States has not accused Aristide of involvement in trafficking.

But US officials have been adamant over the last year that Haiti has become an increasingly important transshipment point for cocaine and other illicit drugs into the United States.

The most serious charges of drug-trafficking in Haiti have been leveled not at Aristide but at some of the leaders of the insurgency that had battled to unseat him in a revolt that began Feb. 5 in northern Haiti. Many analysts and diplomats remain nervous of a future Haiti government that includes these powerful rebels, many of them associated with previous, brutal Haitian regimes.

The Florida case highlighted the growth of the drug-trafficking network there. Ketant told the court: "He [Aristide] controlled the drug trade in Haiti. He turned the country into a narco-country. It's a one-man show. You either pay [Aristide] or you die."

Three diplomats based in Haiti who were familiar with the negotiations that led Aristide to leave the country at dawn yesterday said on condition of anonymity that they understood Washington had used Ketant's public words and private cooperation with US prosecutors to add to the pressure on Aristide.

"You have to look at the declarations of Ketant to understand a lot of things, to explain a lot of things," a high-level European diplomat said of the deterioration in support for Aristide. "It was a way to help the negotiation [along]."

Support in the international community for Aristide eroded over the past week, as violence worsened throughout the country, some of it at the hands of Aristide's supporters. "One could make the hypothesis," said another senior diplomat, that Ketant's declarations "gave the US more leverage that it was in [Aristide's] best interest to leave."

Ketant had a longstanding relationship with Aristide. He is the godfather of one of Aristide's daughters. "He really trusted Aristide," one diplomat said of Ketant. "They were close. They were collaborators."

Prosecutors said Ketant used his contacts in the government to establish a cocaine pipeline to the United States. He worked primarily with remnants of Colombia's Medellin cartel, as well as the Norte de Valle cartel, who shipped the drugs to Haiti.

From there, Ketant's smugglers carried the cocaine to different places in the United States in boats, luggage, and their own stomachs. In the process, Ketant amassed a fortune and bought several houses, boats, and art worth millions of dollars.

But relations between the drug dealer and the president soured last year, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Haitian police shot and killed Ketant's brother in February. And in May, Ketant's men stormed a private school attended by many children of US Embassy officials. That embarrassing transgression led Aristide to call a meeting with Ketant in June during which, Ketant said, Aristide turned him over to US authorities.

Once in Miami, Ketant began cooperating with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The US attorney's office in Miami was not available for comment on a possible indictment. Until yesterday, Aristide had immunity as a head of state.

During his 25-minute diatribe in Miami against the former Haitian president, Ketant said Aristide was a "drug lord" who controlled most of the drug trade passing through Haiti. "He betrayed me just like Judas betrayed Jesus," Ketant told the Miami judge at his sentencing.

The United States has not formally accused Aristide of involvement in drug trafficking. But US officials have protested for months about lack of cooperation from Aristide's government.

"We really have no reliable interlocutor in the Haitian law enforcement that we can work with to attack the problem," Paul Simons, a State Department narcotics officer, said in a briefing last year. "The government of Haiti has done very little to cooperate with the United States to interdict the flow of drugs or honor its international narcotics commitments. The police in Haiti continue to be highly politicized."

American officials say Haiti's role as a major transshipment route for cocaine and other drugs into the United States has grown significantly in the decade since Aristide was restored to office in 1994 after a US military invasion. A senior US defense official said last week that in 1994, Haiti was not nearly as important a trafficking route as it is now.

Last year, the United States suspended visas of at least five top government officials, including the minister of the interior. The State Department has "decertified" Haiti two years in a row as a cooperative partner in the war on drugs, although President Bush signed a waiver on both occasions.

Farah Stockman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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