Antigua Called A Haven For Criminals -- Island A Paradise For Smugglers, Fugitives, Corrupt Officials

ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands - Antigua, a tiny country in the Eastern Caribbean, is increasingly a hotspot of international crime, including the transshipment of Colombian drugs smuggled into the United States.

Like its Caribbean neighbors, the island with white sand beaches and nearly perfect weather is known to thousands of Americans as a tourist paradise.

But there's another Antigua that has foreign police agencies and governments concerned. Public corruption and illegal activity are so rampant there that U.S. officials privately refer to it as the most corrupt little country in the world.

It is a fitting label for the former British colony some 1,300 miles southeast of Miami. The island has become a haven for fugitives, and its top government officials have been linked to everything from petty theft to international drug smuggling and murder.

Many of those officials - including the controversial Bird family that controls the ruling Antigua Labour Party - are running for re-election Tuesday.

An 18-month investigation based on thousands of pages of documents and more than 200 interviews by The Daily News shows the international community has reason to keep an eye on the election.

Among the findings:

-- Drug dealers operate freely in Antigua, despite the government's claim of stepping up its drug war. Federal officials say there is evidence linking top Antiguan officials to the international drug trade - evidence similar to that used to convict Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega.

-- A speed boat the United States gave the Antiguan government to aid in its fight against drugs has been used in the very activity it was meant to stop, say U.S. officials who maintain aerial surveillance of the region.

-- Antiguan offshore banks are key links in laundering drug money, and Antiguan Financial Secretary Keith Hurst, who is responsible for stopping the activity, says that under current banking laws there is little he can do.

-- Antigua has become an offshore haven for gambling operations outlawed in the United States. Bookies, some linked to the U.S. Mafia, have set up toll-free numbers and special credit card accounts to handle millions of dollars in bets from the United States.

-- An aborted 1988 plan to set up a military training school in Antigua for the secret armies of Colombian drug lords progressed further than many believed. Federal officials say the school could easily have been used by terrorist groups.

-- The FBI says several people on its most-wanted list have surfaced in Antigua, and Antiguan courts and officials have blocked attempts to extradite them.

-- Political opposition leaders accuse Prime Minister Vere Bird Sr.'s regime of complicity in at least six unsolved murders and another half-dozen questionable deaths.

-- The Bird regime ranks just behind the governments of Haiti and Cuba as the third-worst human rights violator in the Caribbean, according to a report scheduled for release March 15 by Freedom House, an American non-profit think tank that rates countries on political and civil liberties.

-- There is a State Department investigation into allegations that staff members at the U.S. Embassy in Antigua have become entangled in the country's prevailing corruption. They are suspected of selling U.S. visas. Investigators were especially concerned with reports that visas were sold to Syrians, whose country the United States suspects of sponsoring terrorism.

Federal agents have confirmed that Bryant Salter, the U.S. Embassy's charge d'affaires, is included in the probe. When the scandal broke, Salter, a golfing partner and close friend of new Antigua Labour Party leader Lester Bird, was sent back to the United States, but he has since returned to the embassy with a promotion.

The United States, which has maintained air force and naval bases on Antigua since 1943, has long received the country's support for U.S. policy in the Caribbean.

The Bird regime has begun a major spin campaign to improve its image, promising stronger action against drugs and government corruption.

Lester Bird - the man who hopes to replace his father as prime minister in Tuesday's election - denied or dismissed allegations that the government was involved in the death of former Financial Secretary Noel Gischard, condoned drug trafficking through the island or had a bad human-rights record.

"There is no more corruption here than anywhere else," Bird said. "Our problem here is that we have people in Antigua who have deliberately gone out of their way to defame their country."

Although the prime minister is not running for re-election, opposition leaders say the future is still bleak. They say Lester Bird has played a key role in most of the scandals surrounding the government.