The Scary Side of Paradise

The Bahamas. A feast of sun, fun, and upscale resorts, right? Try adding murder to the mix, toss in a dubious justice system, and spread over a teeming underclass.

Carolyn was sixteen years old when she gave birth to Anton, the first of five children conceived with two deadbeat dads. The year was 1979 and the Bahamas was just beginning to emerge as the most important marijuana and cocaine transshipment point in the Caribbean Basin, a reliable way station where large shipments of Colombian drugs destined for the United States were repackaged into smaller loads, then smuggled into Florida on small planes or high-powered speedboats. By 1987, when Anton was eight years old, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that more than two-fifths, or 50 tons, of all cocaine entering the U.S. was passing through the Bahamas each year, and just about everybody in the capital city of Nassau knew somebody who was either getting rich off the drug trade or hooked on the white powder that was often handed out in lieu of cash payments. Even the prime minister at the time, Sir Lynden Pindling, was accused of taking millions in payoffs from drug traffickers. (He was never indicted.)

"We became one of the highest user populations per capita in the region," says Brian Humblestone, the psychologist who established the first alcohol treatment center in the Caribbean region in 1967 and helped open the Bahamas' first treatment centers for crack addiction in 1985. "The crack problem was so prevalent that it affected virtually every family," says Humblestone. "There was cocaine literally falling from the sky onto beaches and into the water," he adds, referring to packages of drugs abandoned to the tides after being dropped from planes for speedboat pickup.

The drug use and the influx of easy money raised the level of violent crime on New Providence, the home of Nassau and the most populous of the 700 Bahamian islands dotting the Atlantic some 50 miles off the coast of South Florida. Even though the drug trade, crippled by a U.S. law-enforcement onslaught in the early Nineties, all but abandoned the Bahamas and relocated to Mexico, in Nassau the guns and the thirst for fast money remained. Violent crime surged. According to a study conducted by Dr. David Allen, a Bahamian professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University's medical school in Washington, D.C., violent crime soared more than 200 percent between 1989 and 1994. Until recently, though, the violence rarely crossed the bridge to Paradise Island and was mostly confined to poor black areas of Nassau, creating a dire situation for many Bahamians but hardly a public-relations crisis for the tourism industry.

But two years ago, according to a lawsuit pending in Miami's federal court, a seventeen-year-old girl from Illinois staying with her stepfather at the Atlantis resort was sexually assaulted by a black Bahamian on the beach adjoining the hotel property. The girl's family, blaming lax security, is suing the resort. And last year, according to a recent account in the Bahamian press, two local businessmen taking a shortcut through the trees from Cabbage Beach spotted a black man hunched in the shadows, wrapping long swathes of duct tape around a young woman's limbs. They scared him away and cut the woman loose. These stories of sexual violence never garnered press coverage outside the Bahamas and never reached Joanne Clarke or Lori Fogleman, two young women who, a month apart, headed up the quiet path from Cabbage Beach to the parking lot at the Paradise Island golf course and never came out.

"For years I was wondering why no one else got hurt," says a sanitation worker on Paradise Island who, for fear of losing his job, asked not to be named. "There are people sitting up there in the bushes, looking down on people on the beach, and when they go swimming, these guys run down and grab stuff off the beach and run back into the bushes. Security is pretty spotty at that end of the beach. It's really a shame this had to happen. I think [the hotels that run the security force] were going to get around to bringing everything up to snuff."

Bringing Paradise Island up to snuff is exactly what South African tycoon Sol Kerzner had in mind when he bought the ailing Paradise Island Resort and Casino in 1994, a property that had nearly ruined first Donald Trump and then Merv Griffin. Kerzner was the visionary developer behind Sun City, the South African gambling and entertainment resort that once was among the most famous symbols of apartheid.

On Paradise Island, Kerzner is pouring nearly $500 million into refurbishing and lavishly expanding Merv Griffin's dowdy resort; it had been hurt by years of Griffin slashing both quality and prices, and following the Gulf War, by the economic recession that hit the United States, source of 80 percent of visitors to the Bahamas. Kerzner rechristened the place Atlantis and began drawing tourists back to Paradise Island.

Kerzner's oldest son Butch, president of his father's company, Sun International, says occupancy rates reached 88 percent last year (up from 60 percent in 1994) and are expected to continue to rise. "We saw a country with great potential," says the son, who lives on a yacht anchored in the Paradise Island marina and shares an office suite with his father. "We saw the reasons for the decline as being product-related, which we thought we could fix. At the time people thought we were crazy."

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