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A COASTAL COALITION AGAINST DRUGS.

The geographical routes of drug trafficking are changing throughout the Hemisphere, as traffickers are increasingly transporting illicit drugs by sea. Approximately 50 percent of the cocaine produced in South America is transshipped along the Atlantic Coast of Central America. The routes used by drug traffickers shift as more effective enforcement in one area of the Caribbean pushes smugglers into another. As reported in the Washington Post, "the nature of the business has changed. Outfitted with high-tech equipment--including powerful speedboats rigged with satellite telephones, faxes, and satellite navigation systems--savvy traffickers have learned to switch routes on a moment's notice to exploit weaknesses in the hemisphere's anti-drug dragnet."

As drug transshipments increase, the "pipeline spillage" along this coast has become a reality. Jettisoned packages of drugs are washing up on the beaches of towns throughout the area, such as Blue fields, Nicaragua, and the Bay Islands of Honduras, putting these areas at high risk for drug abuse and trafficking. In addition, the levels of poverty and unemployment in these communities make drug trafficking an attractive economic alternative. Frequently, drug traffickers pay "in kind," which further contributes to the quantity of available drugs in these coastal towns.

In the past, anti-drug monies have been directed principally to drug-producing countries in South America and to education programs in the United States. Minimal assistance has been given to the countries of the Caribbean and Central America, whose coastal communities are the least populated areas of the region. The majority of the inhabitants are indigenous peoples and/or are of Afro-Caribbean descent and speak Creole English, Garifuna, Miskito, or other indigenous dialects. The national-level drug-abuse prevention programs in Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama have been conducted in Spanish and geared to Latin American cultural patterns. Now what is needed are special programs to serve this special but diverse population along the Atlantic Coast.

The multiethnicity of the region is linked in part to the strong British presence in the area for more than a century and the trade that justified British interest. As the Spanish colonies and, later, the nations of Central America, focused development on the Pacific, the Atlantic Coast became even more closely connected with the Caribbean. Thousands of Jamaicans were brought to Costa Rica in 1872 to work on the railroads; many more thousands emigrated from the islands of the Caribbean to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. In the early twentieth century additional immigration was sponsored by the United Fruit Company to support banana plantations in Central America. The multiethnic influences present over time along the coast have contributed to the formation of a unique culture, differing greatly from the Hispanic cultural influences in Central American capitals.

While few hard data are yet available on the extent of drug use in these coastal areas, the perception by local officials and residents is that cocaine and crack use are rising, and that local drug markets are becoming well established. In 1994, through the Central American Epidemiological Surveillance project, sponsored by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Commission of the OAS (CICAD), a survey was conducted in the emergency room of the public hospital in the small Atlantic Coast city of Limon, Costa Rica. The findings showed a slightly higher level of illicit drug use than in the much larger capital city of San Jose.

Along the Atlantic Coast, community frustration with the heightened drug activity has led to demonstrations (notably, on the Honduran island of Roatan and its sister island, Guanaja) to demand that authorities take stronger action against drug dealers. Local anti-drug commissions have also been formed, and mass burnings of confiscated drugs have been carried out regularly by local authorities. Despite this community support, the local government infrastructure is too weak and too poorly funded to be able to provide a rapid or adequate response.

Complicating matters, the burgeoning drug problem is set against a background of rapid economic and social change in multilingual, multiracial communities with deep social cleavages. Tourism is beginning to supplant agriculture and fisheries as an important (but legitimate) source of income, and expensive real estate developments are attracting emigre communities and culture. These outside influences are making dramatic changes, for good and ill, in traditional ways of life.

In response, CICAD organized an initial needs assessment and planning meeting in early 1997, in Roatan. Attending were drug-abuse prevention and health-care professionals from Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama, as well as representatives from both their central governments and the coastal regions. Participants confirmed the urgent need to strengthen drug-abuse prevention programs along the coast and adopted a plan of action for prevention activities in selected communities and islands. The plan calls for the organization of projects in specific communities, training in diagnosis and research methodology, training in drug-abuse treatment, community mobilization, and evaluation of the results.

After the plan was presented to each nation's central government, local coordinating committees were formed, including municipal officials, community leaders, health workers, drug-abuse prevention specialists, clergy members, and educators. Local ethnic groups devoted to cultural survival, as well as language and historical preservation, also play key roles in insuring that prevention messages reflect indigenous and African cosmologies.

Activities have been designed to meet local needs and relate to these specific communities: Stann Creek District, including Dangriga (Belize); Cahuita, in the Province of Limon (Costa Rica); Puerto Barrios and Livingston (Guatemala); Trujillo and the Island of Roatan (Honduras); Bilwi, Bluefields, and Laguna de Perlas (Nicaragua); and Colon and Bocas del Toro (Panama).

Now in its second year of operations, the project has stimulated a great deal of popular support and interest. Regional training courses have been carried out for local coordinators in Cayos del Diablo, Guatemala (November 1997), in Panama City (June 1998), and in Limon, Costa Rica (July 1998). To measure local attitudes and perceptions about the drug problem, the development of rapid-assessment skills has been stressed. An ongoing regional exchange program has also been established within the Masters Program in Intercultural Public Health at the University of the Autonomous Region of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua (URACCAN). CICAD is currently sponsoring a regional training course in drug treatment and rehabilitation in Bluefields, Nicaragua, and recently completed a pilot ethnographic study in Roatan; research has also begun into drug-use patterns in several coastal communities.

During 1999 regional training programs will be conducted concerning research and evaluation methods, as well as drug-abuse prevention in the context of indigenous public health, emphasizing traditional medicine and healing practices. Support for community-based drug-abuse prevention activities will also continue, in order to strengthen community mobilization and participation, especially among youth groups, women, and high-risk populations.

Drug-abuse prevention materials will be produced in the several languages commonly used on the Atlantic Coast, to better serve the ethnically diverse populations of this region. Materials written in English will be circulated in Nicaragua (Bluefields), Costa Rica (Puerto Limon), and Belize; those in Miskito in Nicaragua (Bilwi) and Honduras; and those in Garifuna in Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In addition, the project has improved communications among local coordinating committees by providing them with fax machines, computers, and internet connections, facilitating the exchange of local experiences and information.

Among the programs also to be initiated during 1999 are research projects to gather information on the prevalence and nature of the drug-abuse problem among school children. The plan of action calls for qualitative research among key informants or marketplace intercept studies, case studies, and ethnographic studies. CICAD and the national drug-abuse agencies that have become involved believe that the research effort itself, by involving local community leaders such as doctors and nurses, municipal authorities, and the clergy, will have a powerful public-awareness effect.

CICAD's regional drug-abuse prevention project has drawn wide popular support because it has enabled communities newly exposed to this infectious scourge to consolidate their actions. It has encouraged a response to the drug problem that is based on the traditions and values shared throughout this coastal region.

Heidi Rauch and Maria Eugenia Perez are specialists with CICAD. Assistance was provided by CICAD's demand-reduction team.
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Author:Rauch, Heidi; Perez, Maria Eugenia
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:20CEN
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Words:1340
Previous Article:A BETTER BREED FOR LIFE.
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