updated 9/11/2006 4:55:39 PM ET 2006-09-11T20:55:39

A beachfront mansion. A high-speed boat. And a ton of cocaine. It sounds like “Miami Vice,” but in Kenya it’s real.

Until recently a backwater producer of marijuana and hashish, Kenya has become a cocaine distribution hub, according to the U.S., the U.N. and British diplomats. Traffickers from South America are taking advantage of Nairobi’s extensive air links to Europe and Asia and spending piles of cash to minimize government interference, they say.

“International drug trafficking rings have made inroads in Kenya and may benefit from a climate of official corruption, which allows them to operate with near impunity,” says the State Department’s 2006 drug control strategy report.

The cocaine allegations are a further headache for a country already caught up in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and struggling to make good on the reformist democracy it voted for when it elected President Mwai Kibaki four years ago on an anti-corruption platform.

The reports of a burgeoning cocaine trade underscore how official graft and complicity continue to thrive under Kibaki’s government.

Coke in a boat
The wake-up call came in December 2004. Kenyan police, acting on a tip from the Netherlands, raided a luxury housing compound in seaside Malindi and a warehouse in Nairobi. Their haul was a record for Africa: 1.1 tons of cocaine, some of it hidden in a speedboat.

Investigators found that South American traffickers had moved into Kenya because law enforcement was tightened in Spain, once a main transit point for cocaine headed deeper into Europe, said Carsten Hyttel, Eastern Africa representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

A former top Kenyan prosecutor, meanwhile, says he was fired for probing too deeply into the 2004 cocaine haul. Philip Murgor charges that corrupt or inept Kenyan police officers protected the smugglers from prosecution. His allegations dovetail with the concerns expressed by Western diplomats and U.N. experts over corruption in Kibaki’s government.

The allegations are helping to make Kibaki’s administration look increasingly like the corruption-riddled, 24-year rule of his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi. Moi’s regime failed to crack down on drug trafficking that included heroin, marijuana and hashish. Kenya has frequent flights to Pakistan and India, making it convenient for heroin couriers.

But the only drugs seized in large quantities in the past were marijuana and hashish.

Flight attendants arrested
In a series of busts early this year, several Kenya Airways flight attendants were arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport carrying pounds of cocaine.

Kenya has gone from zero cocaine seizures on flights out of Kenya to “quite a few, so that is an obvious concern to us,” Mark Norton, spokesman for Britain’s embassy, told The Associated Press in June.

George Kiragu, a Kenyan serving a five-year sentence in the Netherlands for helping to smuggle cocaine there, charges that he’s a victim of a cover-up of corruption. He is resisting extradition to his homeland to face charges related to the 2004 seizure, saying his life would be in danger.

“The Kenyan authorities know who is guilty ... I’m being used as a scapegoat. If we could get more information, it would be clear that someone is being protected,” Kiragu said during an extradition hearing.

Kenyan officials, including Police Commissioner Mohammed Hussain Ali and Joseph Kamau, who oversaw anti-narcotics detectives as director of the Criminal Investigation Department, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about allegations of corruption surrounding the 2004 seizure.

Details of the case reveal the scope of the drug smuggling operations.

The Zevenbergen bust
Kenyan police were tipped off about the shipment by their counterparts in Europe, who had discovered 650 pounds of cocaine in a container shipped from Kenya to the Dutch city of Zevenbergen on Dec. 7, 2004. Five men, among them Kiragu, were convicted and sentenced to up to five years.

A week after the Zevenbergen discovery, Kenyan police acting on information from Dutch police made their record bust and arrested eight people. Seven others were arrested in the case later, and two trials were held, but only one person was convicted.

Rose Ougo, the magistrate who heard the first of the two cases, acquitted all seven in that trial, and accused the police and prosecution of doing a shoddy job, failing even to show that the suspects handled the drugs.

Murgor, who had been criticized for his handling of high-profile cases, claims he was fired as director of public prosecutions in May 2005 because he pressed for “a transparent investigation.” He said the acquittal confirmed his contention that there had been “a cover-up by the government, and in particular the police, designed to protect the barons behind trafficking cocaine in and through Kenya.”

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