Bahama Trauma

Miami kayaker Miguel Hernandez was having the time of his life on a solo voyage to Cuba -- until a multinational team of drug cops crashed the party

The Bahamian officers permitted Hernandez to drag his kayak into the woods and secure it to a gumbo-limbo tree with a bicycle lock. Hernandez then climbed into the Coast Guard chopper, the pilot lifted off, and for the next hour and a half the Bahamian police gazed at him impassively while Hernandez wondered what was going on.

"I was very much at peace with myself at the time," he notes. "I said, 'O.K., this is happening, I'm flying somewhere.' I was feeling really good and decided that nothing could spoil my day. One way or another, I would get back here again. Of course things go through your mind. You don't know what people are up to, even if they're the law. I was a little concerned they were going to try to frame me, accuse me of something I had no defense for because I wouldn't know anything about it."

When they arrived in Nassau at midmorning, the Americans vanished. Hernandez was taken by van to a municipal police station where his desalinator, paddles, and other gear were impounded. Then a jailer showed him to his new quarters A a small, stinking cell occupied by a petty drug dealer and a teenager charged with rock throwing. At one point he asked to use the telephone and was told he couldn't. After that he decided to shut up and wait. He did so for the next fourteen hours.

Unbeknownst to Hernandez, he had just encountered a unique and little-publicized organization called Op-BAT -- an acronym for Operation Bahamas and Turks-Caicos. Launched by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1982 to fight narcotics smuggling in the islands, the program is now a permanent multinational fixture whose forces include members of the Bahamian national police and army, police from the nearby Turks and Caicos Islands, the U.S. Coast Guard, Army, and Navy, and the DEA. While the DEA is nominally in charge of Op-BAT, providing intelligence, training, and its own armed agents, it is the Royal Bahamas Police who actually make all arrests.

To U.S. officials, the program is a shining example of joint law enforcement. Coast Guard and DEA spokesmen say the flying posses of Op-BAT -- some of whom sport Batman T-shirts -- have dramatically cut illegal drug importation through the islands and forced smugglers to concentrate on the lower Caribbean and Mexico, a logistical nightmare for the bad guys. But the unusual multinational task force has at times been criticized by U.S. and Bahamian civilians who perceive Bahamian police as ill-trained, trigger-happy, and possessed of lower -- or simply different -- standards of ethical and legal conduct than those of their American partners. The fact that the U.S. supplies the program with pilots, aircraft, weaponry, personnel, and logistical support puts the American imprimatur on Op-BAT. The fact that the Bahamians have final authority over who gets arrested and why raises questions of ultimate responsibility for the operation.

Four winters ago, for example, an Op-BAT unit tailed a suspected drug plane to Sampson Cay, a private island in the Exumas. Witnesses saw a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter deploy heavily armed Bahamian police, who wound up nailing a resident's pet dog with a nine-millimeter slug. The dog's transgression was to bark at the police when they advanced on his owner. The pilot of the supposed drug plane turned out to be a professional dive instructor who had been surveying the surrounding reefs. Complaints by the dead dog's owner and other island residents ensued. U.S. agencies referred complaints to the Bahamian government, pointing out that the Coast Guard had no responsibility in the matter. But the crew of the Coast Guard chopper felt so bad about the mishap that they later flew in a fresh dog to replace the dead one.

At 11:00 p.m. Hernandez's cell door swung open to admit a man who identified himself as an investigator with the Royal Bahamas Police Drug Enforcement Unit. Hernandez remembers the interrogation that followed this way:

"He says, 'Who are you working for?'
"I told him nobody.
"After a while he says, 'We just caught someone smuggling guns to Cuba. Don't tell me you're just kayaking.'"

The grilling continued for an hour and a half, then the man left abruptly, taking Hernandez's proferred logbook with him. From time to time over the next three days, the investigator returned to ask more questions. "I wasn't treated kindly, but nobody hit me," Hernandez shrugs.

The three prisoners took turns sleeping on a cement slab. There was no toilet, so once a day one of them would be let out of the cell to empty a plastic jug that served as communal urinal. Breakfast was cold coffee and toast. The other meal was cold cheeseburgers, fries, and coffee. Hernandez suspected the jailer had a part ownership in a nearby fast-food restaurant.

Finally, Hernandez was given his logbook back and taken across town to an immigration office. He says a sympathetic official there offered to intercede on his behalf with the police in hopes of reuniting him with his kayak. Meanwhile, Hernandez went straight to the docks in an effort to find a mail boat or cargo vessel that could take him south to Anguila Cays. There weren't any. Nor was the friendly immigration man having much luck. After three more days, Hernandez gave up and caught a BahamasAir flight to Miami.

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