Friday, July 18, 2008

The White Goddess of the Andes

Fair Warning
Above: A billboard seen in Belmopan, capital of Belize, Central America

When I lived and worked in Belize back in 1983 and 1984, it was obvious that cannabis use was part of the culture. (A 1953 British colonial report on what was then the colony of British Honduras decries the use of ganja among certain segments of the population.) Initially, however, there was little sign of cocaine use. In the United States it had apparently been gaining a degree of "popularity" among a younger generation in the permissive era following the Sixties. This was also the time when "crack," a smokeable derivative of cocaine was about to make its debut among America's poor and uneducated. But in Belize there was nary a sign of it. Belize is a poor country. Coca plants don't grow there. Cocaine is relatively expensive.

I first became aware of cocaine use in Belize in a surprising way. Belize has several colonies of Mennonites, who settled there beginning in 1959. They are divided into several groups, some of which cling to the old ways, and still travel by horse and carriage. Others drive cars and trucks, and have heavy machinery. They are united by their fundamental Christian faith, and by their German language.

Peter F. was from one of the fundamental groups, but he had fallen for a Creole girl, and took up residence with her. Because of this he had been "disfellowshipped," or at least felt more comfortable living away from his family. He worked for one of his more modern brethren, who owned heavy equipment and, it was said. even had an airplane. Peter operated a backhoe that we leased from his boss. It was understood that he was on our payroll, and we paid him in cash every week. This arrangement had lasted for over a year.

Then Peter's behavior started to change. He started coming into the office for an advance on his pay. Since he'd been with our company for considerable time, we lent him the money. It was only a small bookkeeping inconvenience. Then it became an every week thing, until finally it got to the point that his wages wouldn't cover the advance. We told him that we couldn't front him any more money, and that if there was some problem we could help him with, to let us know.

He ran from the office. We found out later from some of the men that "suppliers" had been furnishing people with cheap cocaine, in order to establish a market, and to "soften up" the country for it. The disfellowshipped Mennonites were among the first people targeted.

Peter eventually straightened out, and came back to work, although he acted ashamed and stayed away from us for a long time.

In the meantime, the scourge swept Belize, causing untold violence, corruption and suffering. The crack epidemic spread among the poor and uneducated, as it did here in the USA. Among other effects, crack addiction led to prostitution and a soaring AIDS problem. Whole villages seemed to have been destroyed in a few short years. Some say, because of the ensuing corruption, Belize must now be classified as a "narcodemocracy."

The sign in the picture above is an attempt to get the message out. This stuff is bad. It's a deceiver, and leads away from happiness, not toward it. Sometimes I wonder if we are doing enough to tell our own people that this is a poison. It is insane to mess with it.

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