Nicaraguan nightmare

Last year, the Nicaraguan government delivered a nasty Christmas present to a Canadian company named Hemp Agro International. Grant Sanders, a Vancouver-based entrepreneur and president of Hemp Agro, received a phone call from Nicaragua last December, telling him that black-hooded government thugs had torched his company’s 1400 acre experimental hemp farm.
Worse yet, Sanders learned that the company’s agricultural advisor in Nicaragua, Dr Paul Wylie, had been waylaid and taken into custody.

As this article is being written ? seven months after the bust ? Wylie still languishes in a hellish Nicaraguan prison. Cannabis Culture interviewed Sanders to find out the latest chapter in this horrific story of cannabis injustice.

Cannabis Culture: When you talked to us in January, you were still in shock over what had happened, but you expected Wylie freed and a total exoneration. That hasn’t happened, has it?

Grant Sanders: No, it has not, and we are utterly frustrated and frantic about it.? Paul is still in jail, and now he needs surgery and we can’t even get that for him. There have been riots in the prison where he’s being held. It’s just terrible there; he is being subjected to bombings and tear gas. It’s the most pitiful and illegal conditions. He’s had a helluva bad time.

CC: Has the Canadian government helped to secure his release?

GS: The Canadian government was very slow, too slow, in helping us. They inquired about him after I asked them to, but even then they just checked to see if he had reading materials and medicine. They accepted what they were told, apparently without checking. I am happy to say that they now seem to have recognized the gravity of this situation, and are making more serious and pointed inquiries.

What kinds of legal and political maneuvering are involved in this case?

We now have this in front of a Nicaraguan high court. On March 25, a lower court ruled that we did nothing wrong, we were innocent, we acted with full government permissions, our intention was to grow a legal crop and benefit the Nicaraguan people. They ruled that we had no illegal intention to grow marijuana, nothing illegal at all, that we weren’t growing marijuana.

This is a recorded decision that has now been sent through to an appellate court three judge panel. The three have to sign off on it. We have seen hope dangled before our eyes, and then dashed. They told us two had signed off and one would do so, but every week it’s a new excuse, and more delays. This is breaking our hearts.

What would happen if things went the way you want them to?

Paul is released, and we’ll get him the hell out of there so there’s no emotional ties to anybody there, and then we’re suing them all. We’ll sue the police in the supreme civil court for damages, not just punitive damages and remuneration of income, but for personal damages. Paul will sue for personal damages and defamation. We’re going to go after them in every way.

Putting the police and officials on trial?

We’re not sure it’ll have to go to trial, because the Nicaraguan government doesn’t want the publicity against them at a time when they are trying to attract worldwide foreign investment money. They have to counter the fact that they took a legitimate Canadian company growing a legitimate crop and ruined us for no good reasons.

They need to be seen as a safe country for outside investors, and of course what they did to us would give anybody pause; so we believe they would want to settle appropriately out of court. We’re at the stage now where we’re looking at what we lost in contracts, in equipment, in our personal lives. They cost us a $4.3 million contract backed up by a line of credit that had already been approved. We have to get a large chunk of change to make up for what they did to us.?

Have you been able to personally visit Paul in prison?

I cannot go down to visit Paul. I’m wanted down there. None of the Hemp Agro partners can get near there; we could be seized and jailed. Paul’s girlfriend, a Nicaraguan national, goes to the prison every week and brings food to the guards to give him so he won’t starve. The guards don’t harass her, but that’s because we pay four guards to make sure he’s alright and that he gets his food.

The United Nations and Amnesty International should look into the fact that all he would get is a bowl of rice a day otherwise. It’s even worse than US prisons. We are giving the guards $700 Canadian a week minimum. I have to Western Union the money down there every Monday. We are partially supporting his girlfriend, and she also has family down there that we support.

So if you didn’t have money to send to connections in Nicaragua, Paul could be injured or die of starvation? Isn’t the Canadian government supposed to help its citizens when they are arrested on false charges abroad?

We placed huge pressure on the Canadian government through well-respected members of Parliament. The Parliament member from Newfoundland has been very helpful. On the other hand, we called Senator Lorna Milne, the so-called hemp hero, and she never called us back, even though we were in 137 newspapers and she should have helped a Canadian hemp company like us, if she is so dedicated to the cause of hemp. So far she has done nothing that we know about. It is a puzzle, and very sad.

You sound bitter.

We’ve been seeking help from the Canadian government, not only from a business perspective, but from a personal and humanitarian perspective ? they should help one of their citizens who has been persecuted and wrongfully incarcerated.

The government didn’t do enough at the beginning. Lloyd Axworthy went there as our government’s foreign affairs person, and made some statement that the Nicaraguan government and court system was completely legal and fair, when less than a week later we see reports that there’s been 97 charges against Nicaraguan federal judges since 1997.

There’s rampant, documented corruption: the judge that charged us is no longer a judge; she’s in jail. The prosecutors who brought the charges are in jail on bribery and corruption charges. We said to Canadian authorities here, if you think we’re doing something wrong, we will open our records and books to you and you can determine if we were doing something wrong.

We helped them do their due diligence in investigating our company; we handed over every document since the inception of the company. They investigated us and backed our argument completely that our company was legal and valid. So we couldn’t do any more than we did to prove that we are right and the Nicaraguans wrong.

And on top of that, our government was aware, from March 25 onward, that the Nicaraguan government has admitted that we were in the right.

Here’s what we expect: we expect the Canadian government to put pressure on Nicaragua. Here’s our government offering in excess of $250 million to that country for aid and business ventures, and yet they’re offering this money to a country that has raped and pillaged Canadian citizens and a Canadian company of their income, and endangered a man’s life.

The only government person who is really trying to help is a person from foreign affairs named Sally Marchand. She has tried to keep us informed, but she doesn’t have enough pull to do everything we need done. She knows that this situation is a farce and that it’s a shame that we have to go through this. Here we sit losing vast amounts of money and there a guy sits who doesn’t deserve to be in this situation.

Some mainstream media reports said that you had misrepresented Paul’s agricultural expertise and otherwise implied that Paul was a jerk and that your company was somehow a bit seedy.

We were misquoted and slandered in a Toronto paper. We had given an accurate representation of what Paul had done and who he was, and they for some reason chose to make negative comments about him. What Paul achieved down there speaks for itself. We had a hemp crop that was successfully growing, it was a legal product. The International Hemp Association verified that we were growing a great, unique crop that counted as a new and extremely useful tropical strain of hemp. We had scientific data that speaks for itself. We completely stand behind what we did and what Paul did, and we reject any of those negative stories in the press that attempted to portray us in a bad light. I have no idea why they did it.

Paul didn’t do anything bad to anybody down there. Even if he had mistreated a worker, it shouldn’t have resulted in DEA involvement, government involvement. He treated his employees well; we are one of the few agricultural companies that paid their employees and fed them three meals a day.

Hemp Agro had employed Danilo Blandon, a very controversial person accused of being a foreign CIA operative who helped import cocaine into America on behalf of the US government, to help out in Nicaragua. Why?

His credentials were very good. He had an MBA, and good connections in Nicaragua that went back a long way. Yeah, now I’ve read Dark Alliance, [a journalistic book that claims that the CIA imported cocaine to fund US-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua]and it’s worrisome. But my belief is that these accusations are based on fantasy.

Danilo says the book is false and incorrect. He denies all of it. People accuse him of selling fifty thousand and seventy thousand kilos of cocaine, so why isn’t he in jail? His accusers say he’s not in jail because he’s a protected high-level informant and drug smuggler for the US government, but it’s just as likely that he is not an informant and that the smuggling charges are untrue.

He is not being protected. He is struggling with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) just to keep his green card to stay in the US. They are trying to deport him. We think this is an easy way for the DEA, CIA and INS to get rid of him and silence him. The INS says “we would like to keep you here but Nicaragua wants us to extradite you.” If he’s sent to Nicaragua, he won’t be able to speak out, he won’t have anywhere near as much of a voice, if he has a voice at all.

In retrospect, was the hiring of Blandon a smart thing to do?

He was brought in as an administrative partner who could guide things and handle day to day functions because we knew about the language barrier. We were a very legitimate company without a background in things that Blandon was allegedly involved with, and we have to be concerned with hiring somebody with that background especially with the nature of the industry we were in.?So maybe we were a bit naive to have him in our company, but he was good for advising us on areas that we felt we needed, and he has done nothing that we know of to hurt us. He has tried with all his might to help change the situation down there.

Blandon been indicted and charged, and if he had been down there, he would have been arrested and in a prison with Paul. He apologized for not being able to prevent this from happening.

We have to get to the bottom of this. Is it because of Danilo Blandon? Is it because of the firing of an employee that we had that led to an action by the Sandinista commandants? The sad part is that we had a great hemp crop down there and now a good business has been destroyed.

What do you mean- “the firing of an employee led to an action by Sandinista commandants?”

The police forced is made up of mostly Sandinistas. Even the federal police, especially upper echelon, are Sandinistas. So there was a guy who worked for us down there who was hired and fired by us, because he stole from us and forged documents. This happens in employment circumstances. Paul had to fire him.

The guy went to the Sandinistas and said, “This guy fired me, but he grows marijuana,” and the Sandinista cops said “Hey wait a second, Danilo Blandon, a member of the regime we fought against and our old enemy, is involved with this.”

Blandon was definitely against the Sandinistas and formed the Contras to fight them. So it doesn’t matter what they’re growing, the Sandinista police reason, we’ll get them. Then this dark cloud goes larger and larger, and then the DEA gets involved, and pretty soon it’s a nightmare.

We tried to get the DEA to explain their involvement in all this, but they won’t even talk to us. They could have stopped this, but they did nothing, at best. I think the police force of Nicaragua is mostly responsible. Many of the higher police officers there have already hired attorneys in anticipation of lawsuits from us, because there was not a court anywhere that ruled we were growing an illegal crop but within a few hours of Paul’s arrest they were burning our crop.

They also confiscated our machinery, and we have never received an inventory of all the goods they seized. Tractors, plows, irrigation equipment and combines were taken. We believe our unique and valuable hemp seeds are safe and being kept in climate controlled conditions, but we don’t know.

It really disappoints us, because we envisioned a Latin American hemp program of economic revival, involving farmers and processors to grow our new patented and tested variety of tropical hemp. We have a vast amount of seeds that are specially adapted to tropical use. We want to offer hemp programs to Belize, Honduras, other tropical countries and Africa.

How has the hemp industry reacted to what happened to you?

You really find out who your friends are when something like this happens. Some of the big hemp people that we thought would help have completely turned their backs on us. But we have also had some great friends, including your magazine, and I count amongst those people first and foremost Donny Wirtshafter [of Ohio Hempery]who has been fighting for hemp and against these governments all along.

Donny flew down to argue for our guy in Nicaragua when nobody even knew what was going to happen, and that showed great personal courage. This is the kind of person we need in the hemp industry: strong, principled and fearless. It means a lot to us, and we give him all our thanks.

So what’s going to happen? Is this going to go on and on?

They’re still holding Paul. I think they are trying to weaken our position, make us promise to give up any civil suits against them, to get him out of there. He needs surgery, and is in excruciating pain. We couldn’t even get him any medication, until the Canadian consulate stepped in and made sure he was getting it. But he has to inject himself with the medicine because they are under lock-down.

We’d like to get him released on sick leave, and then maybe a house arrest, but who knows if that’ll work? I hope he doesn’t die in there. There are body bags coming out of there all the time. It’s a war zone. We’re at war to get justice and get our man released.

Why is it taking so long?

Some insiders have told us that the Americans may be involved in this. The DEA does not like hemp, which is why Canadian farmers can grow it but the American farmers can’t. The DEA agent who inspected our field may have told the Nicaraguan government officials that they will open themselves up to civil liability if they free Paul.

The result is that the Nicaraguans are demanding that we submit to them, in Spanish, the documentation provided by US Customs officials in Long Beach last year, when the hemp seeds were trans-shipped.

This documentation proves that the seeds were industrial hemp, not marijuana. Other Central American governments also certified the seeds as hemp. This is a phony issue. All we ever wanted, all we ever did, was to grow hemp.