Image: A police officer walks by the hall of the former Gold Gym shopping in Port-au-Prince
Jorge Saenz  /  AP
A police officer walks by the hall of the former Gold Gym shopping, which was expropriated by the Haitian government from a major cocaine trafficker and is now the new headquarters of the Provisional Electoral Council, in Port-au-Prince, on Wednesday.
By
updated 3/24/2010 5:51:39 PM ET 2010-03-24T21:51:39

Election workers scurry across the airy courtyard of their lavish new headquarters, a three-story building that hardly suffered a crack in Haiti's earthquake.

With its stately iron gates, the building looks like a government office. But until recently, it was an upscale shopping center, the $1.8 million property of a major cocaine trafficker.

New cooperation between Haitian authorities and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration before the Jan. 12 earthquake brought an unexpected yield to a country whose infrastructure is in ruins: confiscated properties that are spacious, opulent — and free.

The drug lords built them to last. While the quake destroyed all the government ministries' headquarters, only four of the 30 seized buildings suffered quake damage.

"It's bizarre that the buildings built by drug traffickers survived and the government buildings collapsed," said Max Boutin, who administers the properties for a Haitian anti-drug trafficking commission. "Now the buildings will be here to support the government."

'Built to survive'
In an interview on leather couches in his new office, Provisional Electoral Council president Gaillot Dorsinvil said he could not imagine a better replacement for their collapsed headquarters. His workers fill rooms that held clothing boutiques, a restaurant and a Gold's Gym.

"It gives an impressive appearance. The space is big enough to hold everyone and, most importantly, it was built to survive a magnitude-8 earthquake," Dorsinvil said with a smile.

The Haitian government began confiscating traffickers' real estate a little more than a year ago with help from U.S. investigators. The DEA says the seizures are worth roughly $25 million so far. The list of stores and mansions includes some of the most desirable properties in areas just outside the hard-hit downtown.

That doesn't mean the offices of the collapsed Presidential Palace will be operating out of a narco-mansion anytime soon.

Many of the confiscated properties may be too residential or too distant from downtown for the government, said Patrick Delatour, who is in charge of reconstruction. So far, the shopping center on a tree-lined, clean-swept avenue in the Petionville hills above Port-au-Prince is the only one hosting government operations.

While the president and government ministries still operate out of a police station and tents, the elections council was relocated first because of the priority given to preparing for the presidential election later this year, Delatour said.

Another seizure — a gated mansion at the end of a long stone driveway outside the city center — has been assigned to the Youth and Sports Ministry. A home will become a criminal justice building and the Interior Ministry is moving to a commercial center, Boutin said.

New level of cooperation
The seizures reflect new cooperation between the U.S. and a financial crimes division of the Haitian police, said Darrel Paskett, the DEA attache at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

Although President Rene Preval has called drug trafficking a threat to his country's stability, successful prosecutions of major suspects in Haiti are rare.

Now, Haiti extradites suspects to be tried in U.S. courts, providing legal grounds for confiscating properties. Under Haitian law, the government can seize property once a trafficker is convicted.

The shopping center's former owner, Pascal Garoute, was arrested in 2007 and accused of smuggling cocaine to New York and Florida beginning in the mid-1990s. A Haitian national with U.S. citizenship, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

As a drug transit point, Haiti accounts for only an estimated 3 percent to 4 percent of the cocaine reaching the U.S. Colombian drugs typically arrive at clandestine air strips in secluded areas such as the central plateau and are smuggled out on Haitian freighters.

Garoute was typical in that his organization counted rank-and-file police officers among its employees. He arranged groups of national police to provide security for arriving drug flights, according to documents from federal court in Miami.

For Dorsinvil and his election workers, life now means working in an office that drug money built. It may feel strange, but nobody is complaining.

"Everybody is happy here," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments