What Happens to a Tiny Caribbean Island That Says No to Tourism?

by Owen James Burke

providencia

Photo: BBC

Old Providence, or Isla de Providencia, Colombia, lies 140 miles off the coast of Nicaragua in the Caribbean. It has a small population of about 5,000-6,000 residents and, unlike neighboring San Andrés and its resort-speckled shores to the south, has managed to stave off tourism–a venerable point of pride for any Caribbean locale–but at what cost?

providencia1

Photo: BBC

But on such a small island with so few resources, there’s only one place that offers a relatively stable income, and that’s the high seas. While some keep to fishing, others, being situated directly in the middle of Latin America’s trafficking routes, have found themselves at the mercy of the drug trade.

Known for their superior navigational skills, the fishermen of the island are approached by cartels to run narco-speedboats. Some make it, but many others don’t.

Islanders who turn to trafficking end up in jails around the world, or murdered by the cartels for not following through on missions. One resident and researcher, who chose to remain anonymous, told the BBC that she believes about 800 of the island’s men have gone missing in recent years.

But according to that researcher, the interest in drug trafficking is not entirely due to the lack of opportunities on the island. Because of the potential gain, and the adrenaline and ego associated with drug running, many young men glamorize the trade, and she has overheard boys saying things like “I’ve got three options – hit, miss or get.” In other words, make the delivery or die trying.

Other mariners, who chose to keep their distance from the drug trade, like Loreno Bent, don’t necessarily see drug running as a crime, and don’t condemn it, either. In many ways, it’s a mariner’s life like any other.

Read more at the BBC, and read Running with Salts, my firsthand account of trafficking on a similar island in the Leeward Islands.

–OJB

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