Square Grouper on the Cocaine Coast

After a long search for my perfect beachfront property on the Caribbean island of Guanaja, my husband and I had found it. And apparently our new home was good for cocaine.

One of the Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras, Guanaja is laid-back, forested and surrounded by coral reef. With only one paved road, its remote feel was ideal for us, as well as our clients who accompany us on kayak trips. But getting the low-down on the intricacies of drug running was unsettling, even though the islanders I knew treated it as a non-issue.Guanaja, Honduras

“Dem drug runners from Colombia dump it overboard when dey think police comin’,” said Wilson, the local plant nursery proprietor. “Da coke in waterproof packages. It wash up on shore; dey go try ta get it back.”

“Square grouper” is what islanders called the packaged bricks of cocaine, as if they were common reef fish. Initially, I was worried about drug runners following GPS signals from the packages to my house. Would I wake up one tropical morning to find them on the beach, looking for their treasure? What if I found it first?

Wilson reassured me. “Nah, man. You find it, den go to a guy in town. He buy it back from you, no problem.” I wasn’t so sure. What if the police found out?

“My cousin picked up,” Wilson said, using the island term for finding square grouper. “He add to his home, buy a new engine for his boat and buy me dis motorcycle too.” Wilson stopped rubbing at the chrome with the edge of his T-shirt and looked at me—his frosty blue eyes a contrast to his dark face. “He can’t put it in da bank, or da government ask questions. Spend it all on the island in a week. Spread it around some—everybody happy. Keep an eye on your new beach, Miss Jill. I move the grouper for you, I pay him back.”

Like Wilson, few islanders bothered about the Colombian speedboats, blazing within 40 miles of the coast of Honduras on their way to Mexico or Texas. By participating in the finder’s fee process, locals can get money out of the deal without having to deal, so to speak. As long as people outside of the traditional trafficking system benefit, the “War on Drugs” is doomed.

Pirates: That’s how mainland Hondurans refer to the people in the Bay Islands. The islanders often joke about the claim as well, though many descend from the freebooters. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, privateers and buccaneers took rum-influenced breathers on the islands, and Captain Henry Morgan frequented Guanaja and nearby Roatán. It’s no surprise that their progeny has found a new kind of wealth—but unlike buried treasure, this type floats.

It would be more romantic to turn up buried treasure like doubloons, gems or gold. But the thing that kept the pirates around for so long was their ability to adapt. Now that we knew our property was capable of bringing in additional income, we were true islanders.

While my main goal for that trip to Guanaja was to finalize the property purchase, I still had time to visit with friends. Before I saw Wilson, I met another island friend, Lorna, an 8-year-old I’d seen grow from a toddler in my years of visiting Guanaja. As long as I’d known her, the pretty girl with waist-length brown hair had walked the mile-long beach near her house each morning at dawn—scouting for grouper with her grandfather.

We walked along the water’s edge, toward a small peninsula that jutted into the reef. The sand was scattered with shells. I regretted not wearing something with pockets. But since I would soon be a resident, this wasn’t the last opportunity to become a seaside collector. And my own beach, on the cocaine coast, had plenty of shells.

Lorna poked piles of flotsam and turtle grass. “Hey, can ya help me lift this?” she asked, pulling a piece of driftwood from the grit. I ran over, and hoisted the other end to my hip—where it rested while I craned to see underneath. Nothing. We let it drop with a thud and blast of sand, and moved on to peek into other drifts of ocean debris.

A couple visiting the nearby dive resort approached us. “Are you looking for seashells, little girl?” the woman chirped.

Lorna looked at the woman. “No. Cocaine,” she said flatly, and stuck her head back down into the tangle of wood.

After wishing us a good day, the couple quickly turned and left, seemingly unsettled by Lorna’s frank answer. I don’t blame them. The illegal drug trade is linked to violent crime, among plenty of other societal problems. But here, islanders don’t see everything black or white.

When Lorna’s grandfather found square grouper three years ago, he was able to pay for her mother’s medical treatment, buy a more reliable engine for their boat and add two small rooms onto their shack so three siblings wouldn’t have to share one tiny bedroom. It’s part of life here—some buy motorcycles, others buy medicine—and “winnings” are spread around to families and friends.

Eventually, Lorna’s likely to find the golden ticket. Maybe she’ll remember me when she hands out some of her winnings. But now that I’m an islander, I’m keeping an eye out too.

Editor’s note: Some names in this story have been changed.

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