When the premier of the British Virgin Islands was arrested in a drugs sting in Miami, what did British government officials know about the operation?
Why this story
Relations between Britain and its 14 overseas territories aren’t always easy. Earlier this year the premier of the British Virgin Islands, Andrew Fahie, was arrested by the US Drug Enforcement Agency in Miami. According to court papers Fahie, alongside BVI’s managing director of ports, had agreed to allow an undercover informant, posing as a member of a Mexican drug cartel, to use the islands to transport cocaine to the US. Millions of dollars were at stake. Fahie denies all the allegations and is currently on bail living in Florida. Alongside this a commission of inquiry, led by a retired British judge, concluded that elements of BVI’s governance was ‘appallingly bad’. The inquiry said that elected public officials shunned the basic principles of good governance allowing dishonesty to flourish. One of the questions we set out to try and answer was how did one of Britain’s overseas territories – and one of the world’s major offshore financial centres, end up in this place? And crucially did the then foreign secretary, Liz Truss, or the governor of BVI know about the DEA operation to arrest Fahie.
Philicianno ‘Foxy’ Callwood, singing: In the middle of an island, in the middle of an ocean. Lots of time for sailing and walking barefoot in the sand, oh there’s no island…
Cindy Rosan Jones: The 28th was a Thursday, right? It was a Thursday.
Giles Whittell, narrating: It’s April this year – 2022 – in the British Virgin Islands. Cindy Rosan Jones is in a bar when she gets a message from a friend.
Cindy Rosan Jones: I’m laughing. It’s not funny. It’s just, I thought: that can’t be real.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Cindy is an activist and a TV host. The message is from high up, from someone close to the governor’s office.
Cindy Rosan Jones: Because I have a WhatsApp, um, blast group of a couple hundred people. So when I send out something, it goes viral. So I didn’t want to send it out if it wasn’t true and people believe… when I say something they rely on my word. And he was like “Cindy, I just got this, straight from the Governor’s office. It is real.”
Giles Whittell, narrating: So, she shares the message. And a rumour started to spread across the Islands.
Tessa Callwood: I was shocked, you know, because always the good words, always the big speech. Always at the end to God be the glory. You know, it was always the religious tone. You know, we are so pure. We are so righteous.
Kareem: I felt betrayed. Just envision a bright, sunny day, you’re having fun, thinking about your next move. And all of a sudden, dark clouds come covering over you and it casts a shadow and you can’t think straight. I mean, for a moment, it was like, is this true?
Cindy Rosan Jones: You know, I had to send out a second message and I was like, yes, it’s true. The premier was arrested in, um, in Miami this afternoon. He was arrested for basically trying to sell our borders to a cartel. That’s what I boil it down to in simple words.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Those allegations are the reason we’re sitting on a beach in the British Virgin Islands, in the dark, chatting about drugs…
Giles Whittell: So unbelievable as it sounds, US drug enforcement agents allege that the premier of this island paradise agreed to a drug smuggling scheme of huge proportions.
Giles Whittell, narrating: A scheme that according to the US authorities involved not just the Premier of the Islands but the Director of the Ports Authority and her son, and another, as yet unnamed, government official.
Giles Whittell: They were offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn a blind eye when shipments of several tons of Colombian cocaine, managed by the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, were moved into British Virgin Islands’ waters. And then onward via the US Virgin islands and Puerto Rico to Miami, Florida, and New York (the two main onward markets in the US). Andrew Fahie was lured to Miami and arrested after checking a $700,000 down payment on a drug scheme that could have netted him $120 million.
Giles Whittell, narrating: $120 million. That’s about 10 percent of the British Virgin Islands’ GDP.
Instead, Andrew Fahie, we believe, is now living 24 hours a day behind closed blinds in a flat in Miami, where he denies all the allegations.
The islands he left behind are bewildered. The government in London – that still claims them in 2022 as a British Overseas Territory – says it knew nothing at all about the American operation to arrest their leader until after it happened.
Almost no one in the BVI believes that. They see, instead, a long-running experiment in post-colonial government.
An experiment that went belly up under the arm’s length supervision of Britain’s last foreign secretary, its new Prime Minister, Liz Truss. Either she knew what was going on, or she didn’t.
Neither scenario is what you might call a good look.
I’m Giles Whittell, and in this episode of the Slow Newscast from Tortoise, Paradise Bust – how a scandal in the British Virgin Islands unfolded on Liz Truss’ watch when she was foreign secretary, apparently without her knowing.
Giles Whittell, narrating: These islands are spectacular. Pearls of the Caribbean. Steep green forests. Soft white beaches. Perfect, limpid water.
It’s no surprise that Richard Branson bought one. As natural wonders go, it’s hard to see how they could be improved on.
And the Cartels seem to feel the same way. There are 55 British Virgin Islands. 45 of them are uninhabited and only a fast boat ride from the American waters lapping the US Virgin Islands, the first stop on a conveyor belt of drugs to the mainland.
BVI is a small place, with a small population
Jason: I think it’s about a little bit over 30,000 or something like that?
Giles Whittell, narrating: This is Jason, although that’s not his real name. He lives, and grew up, on Tortola, the biggest of the Virgin Islands.
Jason: You go to the same schools as everyone, you know, the majority of the people on the island go to the same school. So that’s how, you know everyone and stuff like that.
The island of Jost van Dyke is a short ferry ride from Tortola’s West End, with a population of about 300 very lucky people.
Giles: It’s official, you cannot take the speed boat from West End to Jost van Dyke without feeling you’re in a Bond movie circuit 1968. I mean, the, the boat is, um, deafening and very fast, even though it’s very old, the sea is ridiculous.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Jost van Dyke has what you might call a reputation. In the off-season it’s hot and sleepy. At weekends and in high season it’s a mecca for sleek powerboats and tourists with expensive tans.
It’s home of the Painkiller.
Bartender: The painkiller was invented all the way back in 1970, right here at the Soggy Dollar, we have the Soggy Dollar dark rum…
Giles Whittell, narrating: and The Soggy Dollar – a bar on White Bay, facing Tortola. Over the hill, tucked away among palm trees, more laid back and with less to prove, is Foxy’s.
Foxy’s is an institution, like its owner, Foxy Callwood.
Foxy: Well, this is Foxy’s. My wife runs it. Been here now for 50 years, over 50 years.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Worlds collide at Foxy’s. His family has lived on the Island for 8 generations. His clientele are Islanders, tourists and expats in financial services. That’s two pillars of the local economy right there, but there’s a third, as Foxy’s daughter Justine, who runs another bar on Jost van Dyke, explains.
Justine: And this idea of the three pillars and the fact that…
Giles: Can you explain that idea?
Justine: The three pillars, the three pillars of the economic, uh, pillars of the BVI being tourism, uh, the offshore banking possibly. And there’s actually literally, um, rap song called the three pillars. Um, talking about the idea that drugs is the third pillar of the BVI.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Since November 2020 the Royal Virgin Islands police force has recovered nearly 4 tonnes of cocaine on the Islands. That amount of cocaine would have a street value higher than the annual BVI GDP.
Some drugs are sold and used in the BVI. Most are not. They’re routed through the islands partly because, as Justine’s mother likes to say, a lot gets swept under the carpet, but mainly because of geography.
Jason: We’re close to all these hubs and you know, it’s not hard for people to get involved. That’s what I need to say. We have Venezuela and everything right close to us. So people are gonna get involved. You know, a lot of things do pass through. Of course you can’t stop everything and that’s everywhere. But the only reason it’s such, uh, a big deal over here is because yes, we’re small, but we’re close to the main lands where these stuff come from.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Eddy is a skipper who’s worked on these Islands for years. Again, that’s not his real name.
Giles: Do you ever see the actual drug boats moving around?
Eddy: You see boats that you are suspicious about, but I’ve never actually seen anybody drop any contraband, right. Or pick anything up. We see things floating in the sea all the time. If we don’t go near it,
Giles: What, like packages? Yes, yes.
Eddy: Anything like that? Of the package. It floats. We just try to stay away from,
Giles: Does cocaine float?
Eddy: Sure. If you put it in the right container.
Giles: Okay. And what makes you suspicious when you’re looking at another boat?
Eddy: It’s just the speed, the way the boat’s set up… if they’re travelling at night without running lights and going 60, you can pretty much bet that they’re up to no good.
Giles Whittell, narrating: A former senior British official explained how this fits into the bigger picture. The cartels bring coke by ship or plane. They drop big loads of it on or near an uninhabited island. Locals who might otherwise be in the fishing business put them in the kind of boat that Eddy sees and carry them lickety split to US Virgin Islands, en route to Puerto Rico, Florida, New York. The US Drug Enforcement Agency is watching, but this first step isn’t far. It’s barely a mile of water.
Giles: And, from what you’ve heard, what do they do when they get into US waters? Cos you’ve got the DEA crawling all over them with drones and radar and…
Scotty: Sink the boat.
Giles: They sink the boat…?
Scotty: Sure. If they’re being run and being chased it’s easier just to sink the boat.
Giles: Oh, okay. But if they’re not, then what do they do?
Scotty: They figure out a place to hide and if nobody’s on ’em then they’ll just, then they make it, go on to Puerto Rico, you know, pass St Thomas to go to Puerto Rico.
Giles: How naive am I feeling now, you know, just…
Scotty: I think that’s the best, the best thing to do is just kind of play, play dumb, a lot of the times. You don’t see it, stay out of everybody’s business and keep to your own.
Giles Whittell, narrating: That’s what a lot of people here do.
Only a small number of Islanders are directly involved in the drugs trade. Others are frustrated by the association, which they fear will ruin the BVI’s reputation. But the third pillar is hard to ignore: drug seizures are frequent. One cocaine consignment found in a policeman’s back yard during Covid had a street value of quarter of a billion dollars.
Looking back, it all starts to make sense. Here’s my producer Claudia talking to Jason.
Claudia: Do you remember when you found out about what happened and how you reacted?
Jason: I mean I was a little surprised, but I can’t say I was happy but I was surprised of course It’s, it’s a stain of course, to have your premier get caught up like that. But as far as I know, um, he’s innocent until guilty, so,
Claudia: Does it surprise you to hear about that kind of thing happening on these islands?
Jason: No. No, no, man. It’s politics. Politics is a dirty game.
Justine: I mean, for me, it was just understanding that he held a certain level of command in that community, even though I wasn’t part of that. Whether it was being in the church, whether it was being in the school band and playing a mean French horn.
Giles: He did that?
Justine: Indeed, he was a staple in the band. And then for like, migrating into the church…
Giles Whittell, narrating: Justine, Foxy’s daughter, first came into contact with Andrew Fahie not as the leader of his country, but as a teenager she lived with.
There were no daily ferries from Jost van Dyke to mainland Tortola in those days so she lived with the Fahie family when she was at high school. She remembers Andrew as someone who had status, even then.
From her perspective as an uncertain teenager, his commitment to church, and living up to the expectations of his community was, she said, “superhuman”.
Justine: I mean, he was doing it perfectly, right, you know.
Giles: Was he a model kid in that sense?
Justine: Totally. As far as I know.
Giles Whittell, narrating: After school and college Fahie became a high school maths teacher. He first won elected office in 1999 aged ust 28. And he became Premier, that’s head of government, in 2019.
It’s fair to say he divided opinion.
Justine: He’s amazing. I mean, that ability, I think. There’s a level of confidence you have to carry yourself with. And I think that gives people comfort, you know, whether it’s true or illusionary, the capacity to weave words, or to present a picture is very comforting.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Cindy Rosan Jones, the activist and TV host, formed a different view.
Cindy: He was a dictator. There were a couple things that were major concerns for me with his administration straight out the gate. There was an incident where one of his ministers wanted to have an open waiver in the House of Assembly to do business with government. The way he moved around, um, the ministries. So all the money making ministries were brought under the premier’s portfolio, all of them. Those were big eye-openers for me.
Giles Whittell, narrating: That doesn’t seem to have surprised British officials who have followed Fahie’s career. One told us he came close to “nailing” Fahie for alleged corruption in relation to government contracts way back in 2003. Fahie was never charged and he denied any wrongdoing, arguing the allegations were politically motivated. Either way, most people were still shocked by what happened in April this year.
Cindy: I think you could call it a numbness. There was a numbness over the territory. Um, people were shocked. Uh, they couldn’t believe what was happening. Um, and then there was anger.
Giles Whittell, narrating: It’s easy to see why. The scheme Fahie’s accused of taking part in could have been scripted for an episode of Netflix’s hit show, Narcos. According to a US affidavit released on the 28th, a Sinaloa cartel operative from Mexico approached the managing director of the BVI Ports Authority in early April with a plan to move huge quantities of cocaine through the Islands – three tonnes at a time, starting almost at once.
The MD’s name was Oleanvine Maynard. She was allegedly keen to help, and said Fahie would be too. He was, she said, was “a little crook sometimes”.
Her son joined the scheme, the affidavit says. In a later phone call to the man from the Cartel he said: “the head coach wants to play for the team this season.” That would be Fahie.
Justine: I think he was caught in a web of wanting to do and be, and provide something that he couldn’t. I think he expressed a level of confidence in where he saw this country going, but I don’t think he necessarily saw getting there without the aid of, you know, what we call the side hustle.
Giles Whittell, narrating: If true, it was some hustle.
Fahie did seem to understand the stakes. The affidavit suggests he was often worried and uncertain. Twice he asks the cartel guy if he’s a cop. At one point, he says: “It took me 20 years to get here, and I don’t want to leave in 20 minutes.” Friends warn him not to go ahead. He ignores them.
In one meeting, according to the affidavit, he fishes out a calculator and does a sum. From a 12 percent commission on four months’ worth of shipments he stands to make $80m and possibly much more.
In return, the affidavit continues, he promises to keep the cocaine safe and give the cartel a say in future political decisions. Who might run to succeed him, for example.
Cindy Rosan Jones: You go to the polls and you cast your ex for who you expect to be your next leader, but they were planning that in advance. So it didn’t matter whether you go to the polls or not.
Giles Whittell, narrating: All the calls were recorded by the DEA. All the meetings were filmed. Many of them happened in the BVI. Fahie, allegedly, decides to go for it.
Julian Fraser is the leader of the opposition in the BVI. He worked closely with Fahie and says the allegations are just that – allegations.
Julian Fraser: Andrew Fahie is like everyone else. He’s innocent until proven guilty. Whatever evidence they have, they need to bring it forward. And, he has his day in court.
Giles Whittell, narrating: But Fraser cannot understate the impact of the arrest.
Julian Fraser: The arrest of Andrew Fahie has changed everything.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Across the water from the British Virgin Islands is St Thomas, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. Fahie and the man from the Cartel had several of their meetings here.
St Thomas is Uncle Sam just across the water. Wide roads. Big cars. Stars and stripes.
We arrive there on the ferry from Tortola, and it doesn’t take long to find the Coast Guard behind a chain link fence.
Giles: You guys work together with the DEA. Am I allowed to ask that?
Coast guard: Oh yeah, yeah. Uh, sort of, we’re sort of all autonomous agencies, but we do a lot of joint operations together. Obviously the counter drug mission here is pretty big, that’s been brought to light by, you know, Premier.
Giles: Right. We were over on, uh, Jost van Dyke talking to recreational boaters. Talking about the non-recreational boat guys.
Coast guard: Unofficial commercial vessels, yeah. We have assets out there and we do detection, but they also have assets and they do detection. So it’s a cat and mouse game. Yeah.
Giles: They have their own radar?
Coast guard: No, no, but they have drones and hide and people they pay to watch, so it’s big business all time. Yeah. It’s the wild west out here.
Giles Whittell, narrating: The DEA office was more low key – more undercover. The US Virgin Islands is part of the HIDA program – that stands for “high intensity drug trafficking area”
Giles: There, uh, is no name plate, no sign. There’s just a doorbell. There’s nobody answering the door. You cannot look through the door. Uh, it’s blacked out. I think we’re gonna have to cut our losses pretty soon. There is a police car inside… before we do that hello?
HIDTA voice: Yes. Can we help you?
Giles: Oh, hello. Hello? Uh, yes. I wanted to ask a couple of questions for a, uh, podcast we’re making…
Giles Whittell, narrating: We chat to a disembodied voice through a blacked out door – get a number to call back but no luck – they won’t speak to us about what they call an “ongoing investigation”
Giles: So it’s interesting. It’s obvious he can’t show his face.
Giles: You know, the whole operation can’t show its face. Not, not easy to find.
Claudia: No. I wonder how much of it is undercover?
Giles: I guess, a great deal.
Giles Whittell, narrating: The DEA operates everywhere, including the BVI. And few people know that better than Dick Gregorie.
Dick Gregorie: I’m Dick Gregorie. I was one of the leading prosecutors here in Miami for some of the most well known drug cases in history.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Dick Gregorie was a prosecutor with the US department of justice for 42 years, until 2018. We meet in his Miami offices where I ask him about that HIDA office in St Thomas.
Giles: In the land of the free and first amendment, I thought, I’d see an office with a name plate.
Dick: Oh no.
Giles: It was really hard to find.
Dick: I assume that there were undercover agents that come in and go out possibly. Uh, I assume that there are also informants who, who may be reporting to them. I would assume for their own protection, they’re not advertising their, their, uh, their profession. So, uh, I’m not surprised at all. I’m amazed you even found it.
Giles Whittell, narrating: In the 1980s Gregorie was involved in the jailing of Norman Saunders, Chief Minister of the Turks and Caicos islands, another wildly exotic British possession, mid-way between the BVI and the Bahamas. Later he successfully prosecuted Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator, on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering.
Giles: If you were running an operation like this, I’m talking about the BVI one. And you realised that your target was the head of the government. Would you have to get clearance from Washington before the green light?
Dick: You would now when, when I did Manuel Noriega, it was, uh, different time, and I had a certain amount of independence that I don’t think they’ll ever allow again.
Giles: Because of you and Noriega?
Dick: After I did Noriega, there was a rule sent through the Department of Justice that you cannot prosecute ahead of the state without the approval of the Attorney General himself.
Giles: So are you saying that likely the attorney general of the United States, would’ve known that this operation was happening.
Dick: They might not have considered him head of state.
Giles Whittell, narrating: So that was the situation in the Turks and Caicos case, in which Gregorie was helped by a devil-may-care informant and expert bush pilot called Barry Seal. Their pursuit of Saunders ended in a New York hotel in 1985.
Dick Gregorie: We rigged the hotel with cameras and microphones. Sure enough, uh, in walks Barry Seal and Saunders, they it’s all tape recorded, Seal pays them a whole pile of money. And, and then you hear a knock on the door. Supposedly it’s a guy bringing, uh, food or, you know, whatever. And, uh, uh, Saunders is stuffing the money in his pockets. He’s dropping it, he’s stuffing tit in his pockets. And he caught, got caught, uh, uh, dead to writes.
Giles: He was arrested right there in the hotel right there in the hotel.
Dick: Right there in the hotel. Yep.
Giles: How much did the UK government know about that case before it became public?
Dick: I don’t think they knew anything about it before it became public. Although we did have a great working relationship with those guys and they were very helpful. But if you go to head of state immunity, which is international law. And no question, he was a head of the Turks and CAOs, but he was not the recognised head of the state because the Queen was still the head of state for the Turks and Caicos islands.
Giles Whittell, narrating: So it is possible that the US Department of Justice would not feel obliged to inform the UK government that one of its agencies was about to arrest the elected leader of a British Overseas Territory, on the basis that he was not actually a head of state.
Dick: I would be, I would be very surprised if this didn’t go up, you know, fairly high in the department, the current attorney general is very much a man of the rules. He would expect that he would be put on notice of, of something like this and maybe a deputy attorney general, but somebody would be aware if you had in your sites, say a, uh, uh, uh, prime minister of a, even a small country.
Giles: And at some point, would you expect one of those senior officials to think, maybe we ought to let the Brits know.
Dick: Oh, I would, I would assume that that, that they did. I, I would be, you know, unless this happened on very short notice.
Giles Whittell, narrating: It might have, and we’ll get to that. But most people on the islands are of one mind with Dick Gregorie. They don’t believe the British didn’t know.
Foxy: America is England. England is America. You hear what? This is my belief. Them boy is like this: mother and daughter.
Giles: If so then that makes this a joint operation to remove the elected BVI leader from office.
Foxy: No, he had no call going in the company he were with. He do it to himself.
Giles Whittell, narrating: What we can say with confidence is that the whole thing was a sting. Despite his suspicions and the warnings of people close to him, Fahie walked into a trap.
Which is how, after attending a cruise convention with other government officials, he ends up in Opa Locka private airport in Miami.
Giles: So this is what we know, April 28th, Andrew Fahie is brought here. Palm trees, blue skies, shiny Cadillac Escalade SUVs to carry the gazillionaires around, manicured semi-desert plants, and then three separate, um, kind of oligarch style, uh, terminals for private jet passengers. Glitzy, slick, uh, gentle sounds of cappuccinos.
And you walk straight through, out onto the tarmac. He would’ve turned right onto the concrete apron and there in front of the US customs building would have been a plane. We think rented for the purpose by the DEA. He walks on. He goes to the back of the plane. He’s shown a duffle bag with $700,000 in it, he approves it as a down payment on the scheme, walks off and is arrested.
But it is hard to state how emphatically rich and money this place is compared with where he is now and really compared with, uh, most people’s lives in the British Virgin islands. This is, this is Miami Vice right here, the general manager of the terminal that we just in said that kind of thing goes down all the time. The DEA’s here all the time. Why would they be here if it wasn’t for cocaine and drug money moving in and out all the time?
Driver: I’ve witnessed a few storms before, but that was something more. The storms that I know they come with a whistle, but that storm came with a roar, you know, it felt like a freight train coming. You could actually hear the ground or whatever, rumbling.
Giles Whittell, narrating: We’re back in Road Town, BVI, in a car, getting a tour.
Driver: And I mean, during the, during the eye, during the eye, I came out, looked, you know, from my porch, I looked outside and I couldn’t believe what was actually happening.
Giles Whittell, narrating: It’s five years, almost to the day, since hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Islands – and it’s still hard to miss the impact. It’s there as you enter the harbour past half-sunk wrecks. It’s there in buildings still without roofs, and it’s there in the conversations.
Driver: You know, felt like I had walked into a complete different dimension. The place looked completely foreign.
Giles Whittell, narrating: The storms killed 4 people as they swept through; more in the aftermath. 85 percent of housing stock was destroyed and a lot of people didn’t have insurance. It took months just to get power back.
Driver: We were out, moving out current for current, like my area for over six months. So in the night time… that’s the governor’s house.
Giles: All right. Okay.
Driver: On your right side…
Giles: So it’s a two story, uh, mansion, but up with a view of the port, um, a colonated veranda. Uh, manicured gardens. I’d say what you’d expect for a governor’s house, but with knobs on. Beautiful.
Driver: Its an old building, its am old building.
Giles Whittell, narrating:The job of governor is an odd one. It’s part relic of empire, part post-colonial invention, and usually held by a career diplomat assigned to represent British interests to the Islanders and vice versa.
Julian Fraser, leader of the opposition, doesn’t think it works.
Fraser: The governor is a civil servant in the United Kingdom. He comes here and he’s a God.
For as long as I’ve been alive a UK prime minister had never set foot in the British Virgin islands, never. Unlike the United States where the president goes to the United States Virgin Islands, It’s not as if they don’t know where we are, because I can show you footage of Boris Johnson, walking through offices here in the BVI, right after hurricane Irma in 2017. So he know where we are, he knew where we are. But we don’t basically exist except in the cases where, um, it’s to their benefit.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Gus Jaspert arrived as governor in 2017. He was young by gubernatorial standards, appointed in the wake of a 2014 commitment by David Cameron, among other things, to clean up offshore finance.
That plan was derailed by the hurricanes, but as a parting gift Jaspert announced a Commission of Inquiry, an investigation into corruption on the Islands. It yielded hundreds of hours of hearings and evidence live streamed on YouTube, and a devastating 900-page report
By the time of the hearings, Fahie was premier, and he resented them.
The report was finished in April and scheduled to be published in June, but then Fahie was arrested.
In London Liz Truss, then the UK’s foreign secretary, expressed astonishment. Almost like Claude Rains in Casablanca. She was “appalled”, she said, and immediately dispatched a junior minister, Amanda Milling, to investigate.
The Commision Of Inquiry report was released in full, the day after Fahie was arrested.
Cindy: And, you know, everybody was tuned in to the governor’s speech that Friday. And by the time the governor was finished, I remember I just turned to my sister and I said, I’m gonna call it a day and I’m gonna go home. And I started crying. I think that day I, I just felt absolutely… I wanna say betrayed by the entire territory because I feel like things like this only happen when you’re absolutely quiet, you’re silent, you know, something is wrong. Um, you know, stuff is going on and you preserve yourself first. And we just, we just didn’t, you know, take accountability for holding them accountable. And so we ended up in this space, you know, so I, I guess I was overwhelmed by all of that.
Giles Whittell, narrating: The report made 49 recommendations to stamp out corruption. The first was to suspend the constitution and the locally elected government in favour of direct rule from London, and the point of that was to implement the other 48 without too much dissent.
For John Rankin, current governor, the reasoning was clear.
John Rankin: The UK has a duty to, uh, promote the interests of the people at the BVI, but also has a duty to protect them from any abuse that may be taking place. And what the COI report, it has revealed some serious concerns over potential corruption and failure in Governance
But for Julian Fraser, mentioned by name in the report in connection with government procurement contracts among other things, the timing of its release just after Fahie’s arrest was too good to be true.
Fraser: It couldn’t come at a better time. It’s one of those situations where it’s, it’s like the perfect storm. Perfect for them. Immediately we moved from a people being accused and suspected of, to a people being condemned of. Immediately. All fighting chances had moved from, from good to almost diminished to nothing.
Giles Whittell, narrating: All opportunity to rebut the accusations was lost.
Fraser: I mean, there was absolutely nothing you can say in your defence. What can you say?
Giles Whittell, narrating: Governor Rankin denies any link between arrest and report, and denies knowing anything about the arrest in advance. Although, remind people in Road Town of this and most tend to roll their eyes.
Rankin: Uh, this was a man with whom I worked for 16 months, uh, as governor. Um, I was not aware of the events that were going to happen. Uh, I was only informed that morning, but I was informed, uh, of them. Uh, I then, uh, called the deputy premier who was acting premier at that point while premier Fahie was off island.
Uh, I asked him to come and see me at the government house. Uh, and I sat down and informed him of the information that had been given to me. And then I made a public announcement at that point, but no, I was not previously aware.
Giles Whittell, narrating: The double whammy of arrest and report has been welcomed by some islanders.
Justine: I’m happy all of this is happening. Right. Cause it gets it done and done. You can’t operate like this forever. Right. This is that bridge. It’s kind of, um, an interim transition period. Now we have to really do things the honest way and actually make this place awesome.
Giles Whittell, narrating: But for many the idea of direct rule was unacceptable, including for Julian Fraser.
Julian Fraser: Come on. I mean, this is the 21st century. We’ve gone through a apartheid. We’ve gone through the abolition of slavery since, um, 1834.You know what direct rule really means? It means that the governor himself, one guy, makes all the decisions. He is the one who’s going to be the cabinet. It can’t be right in the 21st century
Giles Whittell, narrating: In the end it didn’t happen. Fraser formed a unity government that pledged to enact the 48 good governance recommendations in the COI report. But the threat lingers.
Fraser: You have to, you have to stay in line. You don’t know what the line is. You have to stay in line.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Gov Rankin characterises it as an insurance policy – in case anything goes wrong. Heaven knows it could. He knows, Fraser knows, Fahie knew, that the COI report contains detailed allegations of drug trafficking involving local officials. It would have been hard for Fahie not to take these allegations personally, and indeed in oral evidence he appeared to accuse the Commission of making the world think he was a drug lord.
For decades, arm’s length control of the BVI suited most Islanders quite well, and the three pillars of their economy, and it suited London. But since Governor Jaspert’s arrival in 2017, the UK government’s been paying closer attention. There’s a whole new floor of UK-appointed staff in Government House. Is it really possible that neither they nor London had any idea what was about to happen?
Rankin says it was London that told him, after the event.
Rankin: It was London who informed me because they had been informed by the US authorities that morning of the arrest of, uh, premier Fahie. So the UK government was informed and the UK government then informed me. So that was the timing, the process it took place. This was not a joint UK-US operation. It was a US operation, which led to the rest of, uh, former premier Fahie.
Giles Whittell, narrating: But a short piece of audio sent to us inadvertently by the governor’s office, recorded in the moments following our interview, suggests that the governor does usually sign off on DEA investigations on the Islands, and that he did know investigations were under way.
Rankin: We’re in a difficult point here, in that I do give the authorisation for DEA operations here. I mean I was aware…
Giles Whittell, narrating: What Governor Rankin is saying is that he does give the authorisation for the DEA operations, and he was aware of the operations generally. He then says, ‘But I was not aware’ before the tape cuts off.
We put this to the governor’s office. He maintains he had no idea Fahie was going to be arrested, and says the audio we received supports that point.
What the audio they sent us shows beyond question is that the governor is supposed to authorise DEA operations on BVI territory.
So one of two things happened in Miami on April 28th. Either the UK government was genuinely blindsided by Fahie’s arrest, which would be odd, if the Governor, who is after all responsible for security, is meant to sign off on DEA operations on his patch.
This would mean the office of the Attorney General in Washington declined to inform an ally that a head of government was due to be arrested in a planned sting operation. That the special relationship maybe isn’t so special after all.
Or, Her Majesty’s Government wasn’t blindsided and at some level acquiesced in the removal of a premier it had reason to believe was corrupt. In effect it outsourced law enforcement to the States.
Governor Rankin insists no one in the BVI is above the law, but he admits it’s hard to bring high profile people to justice because everyone knows everyone and it’s almost impossible to assemble an independent jury.
There is another possibility, that Rankin wasn’t told for his own safety. We were told there were times when a governor might need plausible deniability because of the risk of reprisals from organised crime, and this could have been one of those times.
But it doesn’t mean Washington wouldn’t speak to London.
When we asked the Foreign Office to confirm at what point members of Her Majesty’s Government were informed, of both the investigation into Fahie and his impending arrest, they pointed us to Liz Truss’s original statement. The one where she says she’s appalled, but not much more.
When we said we had reason to believe she would or should have been informed in advance, and were planning to report this, they said they had nothing to add.
Fahie’s trial is set for next year. His co-defendants, Maynard and her son, are in pre-trial detention. Fahie, who could afford a fancy lawyer, has been released on a non-refundable $500,000 bond.
Giles: Mr Fahie, I’m sorry to disturb you. It’s Giles, with Tortoise.
Giles Whittell, narrating: We traced him to a two-bedroom flat in Miami where we saw the blinds twitch once, but no other sign of life.
Giles: Hello, Mr Fahie, if you can hear me, the questions that I would like to ask are why you think the US government is pursuing you? Did the UK government know? What do you have to say to the Islanders? Does all this make independence more likely or direct rule more likely? And of course I’d like to ask, is everything in the affidavit true or do you dispute it?
Giles Whittell, narrating: We understand the terms of his bail say he has to stay in that flat 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with an ankle bracelet to alert police if he tries to make a run for it. Dick Gregorie says he could have cut it off, in which case, he could be anywhere by now.
There is one other possibility. Are you sitting comfortably?
A well-placed source told us the DEA may have rushed to arrest Fahie, infuriating other branches of the US government, branches that may have been hoping to widen the investigation to target a small group of Islanders originally from Lebanon, allegedly connected to the drug trade, and identified by the DEA as, quote, “self-proclaimed members of Hezbollah”, the Iran backed Islamist militant group. Hezbollah denies this.
The DEA refused to comment on an ongoing investigation.
We asked the Foreign Office about this, about the idea of Islamist militants fundrasing in a British Caribean paradise and they again pointed us to Liz Truss’s original statement about Fahie’s arrest, which doesn’t answer the question.
Either the British Government knew about this operation and let it happen in which case, who’s in charge in the British Virgin Islands? Or it didn’t know, in which case, same question, who’s in charge? Prime Minister?
Philicianno ‘Foxy’ Callwood, singing: In the middle of an island, in the middle of an ocean. Lots of time for sailing and walking barefoot in the sand…
Giles Whittell, narrating: This Slow NewsCast was reported and produced by me, Giles Whittell and by Claudia Williams. Additional reporting was by Sebastain Hervas Jones, sound design was by Tom Burchill, the editor was Jasper Corbett
How we got here
One person we talked to for this podcast was surprised we made it to the British Virgin Islands. They’re kind of hard to get to, he said, sounding pleased, and it’s true. If you’ve got your own jet it’s probably a different story, but most people have to take at least two flights and then a ferry that’s something out of Dr No. From London, it’s two days each way.
This could be one reason not many people have gone after the story of Andrew Fahie and the outlandish American scheme to snare him on the steps of a Gulfstream in Miami. But there are others. For a lot of people it’s an embarrassment they’d rather not talk about. Also, at the time of Fahie’s arrest the world was looking the other way, aghast, at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But sometimes needs must in this business. So we packed our sunscreen and set off, and found the BVI a revelation even in low season. Who knew four fifths of them are uninhabited? Who knew the US Drug Enforcement Agency operates in British overseas territories as if in its own back yard? Did Liz Truss know? If not, we think she should have.
Trouble in paradise
The British Virgin Islands has been beset by scandals. The premier was arrested on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, and a separate inquiry found evidence of state corruption. How did it come to this?
Breaking open shell companies
The leak of financial documents known as the Pandora Papers shines a light on ‘shell companies’ which allow people to hide their wealth. Has the time come for tax authorities to clamp down on them?
Sensemaker: Pandora’s cave
What just happened
Russian corruption has been endemic for years; long enough for the watchdogs to know how it operates by laundering money through front companies. Why does the UK still make it so easy to pull off those old, corrupt tricks?