Longform

Buju Banton is innocent

On December 8, 2009, reggae singer Buju Banton slipped on his swim trunks, pulled a pair of jeans over them, and, along with two friends — a female companion and his longtime driver and pal, Ian Thomas — jumped into his silver Land Rover with a "Jah One" vanity plate. They left his modest duplex in suburban Tamarac and began the drive to the Gulf Coast for a day of fun in the sun.

As the exit sign for Naples came into view, Buju called a man they were to meet named Junior to give him a heads-up they would soon arrive. But Junior said plans had changed. They needed to drive to Sarasota and meet him at a restaurant. From there they would grab keys for a friend's boat. Buju agreed.

In Sarasota, the three men sipped margaritas at a restaurant while the lady friend sat in the car. A short while later, the trio headed for a dimly lit warehouse, where someone closed and locked the shutter door behind them. Inside, a stranger who was lurking in the corner began speaking to Junior in Spanish, leaving Buju clueless. There was no boat or keys in sight.

With his long dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail, Buju paced and swayed, his lanky frame oozing nervousness. He asked to use the bathroom but was told the toilet was broken.

"Let me go do it outside," he said.

Junior and the stranger avoided answering him. Then the stranger walked over to a parked car and opened a hidden compartment in the trunk to reveal 20 plastic-wrapped kilos of cocaine.

"I felt my stomach turn," Buju testified months later. "I tried to play it down and be calm. I keep telling myself... be cool, be cool, it's gonna be, just be cool."

Buju's friend Thomas was cool. He plucked a kilo from the pile and plopped it onto a workbench. Buju followed closely behind, peeking over his friend's shoulder as he made a small incision in the packaging. Thomas dabbed a fingertip of the powder on his tongue and proffered the blade to Buju, who followed suit.

After tasting the cocaine, Buju sank into a chair in the corner. He fiddled and tried to occupy himself while Thomas pulled out a phone and negotiated prices with an apparent buyer in Georgia.

"Yo, find out how much he wants," Buju murmured. He later claimed he had no idea who was on the line and that his remark was just an attempt to appear legitimate, to play it cool. Thomas carried on without pausing.

When the warehouse door screeched open, the men exchanged phone numbers. Buju claims he spent the long drive back to Tamarac throwing up from a combination of stress and margaritas. Later that night, Junior phoned the singer twice. Buju avoided the calls.

The next day, Thomas drove back to Sarasota alone and met Junior at an Applebee's for a round of negotiations. Junior pushed to get Buju involved in that day's antics. "He does not want to do nothing, man," Thomas responded. "That's not him, you know? Music, eat, sleep, shit every day." Junior agreed to sell five kilos to Thomas's connection in Georgia, then left the restaurant, called his supervisor at the Drug Enforcement Agency, and said it was a "miracle" that he held onto the deal.

On the morning of December 10, 2009, authorities busted Thomas and a guy from Georgia named James Mack at the Sarasota warehouse, where the two were caught with a gun and $135,000 in cash while trying to buy several kilos. Cops then pulled Buju from his Tamarac home and placed him under arrest on two charges: conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense — even though the firearm at issue was carried by Mack, not Buju.

It's a case built upon the handiwork of a mendacious snitch — Alex Johnson, AKA Junior — with an extensive criminal history and clear financial motives to see Buju arrested. An aggressive federal prosecutor spent big in two weeklong trials in Tampa to secure a celebrity conviction. The saga sheds light on how far the government will go and how dirty it will play to win the few big battles left in the long-ago failed War on Drugs. Now, while one of the most successful and controversial Jamaican artists — a man who won a Grammy for best reggae album a year ago — sits in a Miami penitentiary, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether unconstitutional tactics were used to nail a man who had no known criminal record.

Mark Anthony Myrie, better known by his nickname Buju ("Banton" is a title applied to storytellers and DJs), was born into the blistering heat of Kingston in July 1973. The youngest of 15, he grew up immersed in the poverty and political strife of a country that had gained its independence from the British Empire only a decade earlier. His mom sold provisions at the local market; his dad was out of the picture. As a young boy, he sneaked out at night and peeked into the nearby dancehalls to watch locals perform.

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Chris Sweeney