CC17: Hemp Bust in Nicaragua

The Canadians who founded Hemp Agro International, a Vancouver andOntario-based company, thought they were going to make money by helpingpeople and the environment. Instead, company president Grant Sanders toldme in January, they found out that the war on drugs is seriously impactingthe ability of legitimate, law-abiding Canadian businesspeople to engage inlegal business endeavors.

According to Sanders, who spoke to Cannabis Culture just before going intomedia seclusion, Hemp Agro International was founded in 1991 with aspecific purpose in mind: to develop hemp seed cultivation, processing andmanufacturing in Latin America.

“We’re a group of serious investors, bankers, botanists and entrepreneurswho decided that a good way to help the Canadian hemp industry and CentralAmerica would be to develop a new strain of hemp that would grow well intropical climates,” Sanders explained. “We hired an agricultural expertnamed Dr Paul Wylie, and sent him to experiment with hemp seeds from Chinaand Eastern Europe. After long and patient experiments, he came up with avery promising new breed of hemp seed that we call Zolguanica, ’95. We werevery excited about this, because tropical countries could be ideal for hempgrowing, and they certainly need the injection of clean, sustainable,ecologically-safe enterprises to help their economies and theirenvironment.”

Sanders said it wasn’t easy for seven Canadians to convince the Nicaraguangovernment to allow experimentation with hemp.”We spent at least a year giving information to the Nicaraguanauthorities,” he said. “They had some objections because they thought thathemp was marijuana. We finally found the right word in their language -ca=F1amo – that we believed communicated to them that this is not a drugcrop, this is an industrial, low-THC crop that is easy to grow and has avariety of important uses.”

Sanders’ educational efforts apparently paid off: Nicaraguan authoritiesgranted permission to move forward on the Hemp Agro venture. Soon, thecompany had hundreds of acres of specially-bred industrial hemp planted ina field near Managua, Nicaragua’s international airport.”Planes flying overhead could see our crops,” Sanders said with pride.”People who visited the fields saw a sign announcing that this was a jointventure. We had the Nicaraguan and Canadian flags on the sign. We felt thatthis was going to be the beginning of a marvelous opportunity for trade,cultural exchange and agricultural excellence.”

The collapse of the dream

“Everything was going very well,” Sanders recalls. “We hadcompleted a growing season before Christmas, and our local workers werehaving a good time harvesting the crops. They were hitting the plants toget the seeds out of them for seed oil, and also separating the stalks intobig piles. On the day before Christmas, Dr Wylie took a taxi to the bankwhere he got $5000 for our workers’ Christmas pay.

“On the way back to the farm, he and his driver encountered a group ofarmed men who tried to force them off the road. Dr Wylie thought he wasbeing robbed. The taxi was shot with machine guns. Then Wylie was takenaway and imprisoned. He didn’t know what he was charged with, and wasterrified of what might happen to him.”

Wylie would probably have been even more upset if he had known what washappening to his beloved hemp field.

“A group of black-hooded soldiers moved in and captured the field,” Sanderssays. “They poured oil on it and lit everything on fire. We lost all thefruits of our labour. Then they cordoned off the field and put it underguard. Nobody is even allowed to inspect it. They took the money fromWylie, so our workers didn’t get their Christmas pay.”

Sanders said that Nicaraguan government officials who had been enthusiasticin their outspoken support for Hemp Agro suddenly turned traitor, as localnewspapers whipped up a jingoistic storm of anger against what governmentofficials now alleged was a multi-million dollar marijuana-growingoperation.

“They accused us of the most ridiculous things,” said Sanders bitterly.”Crack dealers, thousands of pounds of marijuana, international drugcriminals. Everybody except our workers seemed to turn against us. All theallegations are totally false and totally ludicrous. There was not even oneounce of marijuana in that field. Not one. No buds. We are a professionalcompany with a website (, who publicly announcedour presence, got approval from government authorities, and conductedbusiness in full view of everyone. For them to say we were involved indrugs, well, that is slander and defamation of character.”

Previous DEA interference

Sanders and his business partners investigated the bust,remembering that the heavy hand of the US Drug Enforcement Administrationand other American agencies had attacked the Hemp Agro venture long beforeit went up in smoke the day before Christmas.

“I think we were a little naive about the way the US government works,”Sanders admitted. “We had a big warning about this when US Customs and theDEA held up a cargo of Chinese seeds that we were trans-shipping from Chinathrough the port in California at Long Beach. They jacked up our cargo andspent all this time examining our seeds, as if you can tell from a seedwhether the plant is going to be marijuana or hemp.

“We obtained their internal memos where they say ‘this is a very hotshipment that we have to watch.’ Then, they decided that these seeds werehemp seeds and allowed the shipment to go on to Nicaragua. We felt thatthis harassment was in a way a kind of blessing, because it gave our seedsan official stamp of approval that they were hemp.”

Official approval notwithstanding, Sanders says he has been told that inthe eyes of a DEA field operative in Nicaragua, the officially classifiedhemp seeds had somehow produced officially classified “marijuana.””The best we can tell is that some DEA agent went out and examined theplants and found resin glands. They listed the THC content as 1.6%, whichis very little and is under the limit set by some other countries forindustrial hemp. Somebody could smoke an acre of our crop and get a bigheadache instead of a buzz, but this low percentage was apparently thejustification for the DEA to tell the Nicaraguans that we were growing adrug crop,” Sanders says.

Nicaraguan justice

Don Wirtshafter, an American attorney and founder of the OhioHempery, was asked by Hemp Agro to go to Nicaragua to assess the situationand assist Dr Wylie, who is still imprisoned.

Wirtshafter says he found Wylie in conditions far less pleasant than thosethat would be endured by prisoners in most North American jails.

“He is being kept in a prison that is perched on the edge of a volcano,”Wirtshafter reported. “It’s a great view, but he can’t see it. None of theprisoners can, because they are housed in dungeons underground. None of therights we have [in America]apply there. You’re guilty unless you can proveyourself innocent. You have no rights to an attorney. They gave me 15minutes to talk to him. They don’t give him the opportunity to assist inhis own defense or to even hear proceedings in English. He probably wouldhave starved to death by now if his wife was not there to bring him food.”When Wirtshafter went to court to testify on Wylie’s behalf, he was himselftreated miserably.

“I consider myself an expert witness in matters related to hemp,”Wirtshafter said, “and I presented a totally credible set of researcharticles and testimony to the court proving that Hemp Agro was growingindustrial hemp, not marijuana. But they were hostile toward me, andtreated me in an insulting way. I just found out that they have thrown outall my testimony, because they=20claim I am not an objective source. I thinkthat politically they are under the influence of our [American] government,and they are out to get these guys.”

According to Wirtshafter, “getting these guys” means that Nicaragua canprobably force Canada to extradite all Hemp Agro partners to Nicaragua, toface possible 25 year terms in prison.

“I’m not sure that Canada can refuse an extradition request under theagreements they’ve signed with Nicaragua,” the activist attorneyspeculated. “Nicaragua has probably given Canada everybody Canada’s askedfor, and if the president of Nicaragua asks Canada to send Hemp Agropersonnel, I think they may have to do it. We have been waiting for theCanadian embassy to stand up and protest what has happened to Dr Wylie, butall they’ve said so far is that they are only obligated to make sure hisrights are being respected.”

Sanders told me that he is of course very worried about the possibilitythat he and the other Hemp Agro partners may face the same fate that hasbefallen their comrade Wylie.

“What really angers me about this is that everybody knew this was alegitimate crop,” he said. “So why did the Nicaraguan government turnagainst it? We look at all the ‘coincidences’ in what happened between theUS government and Nicaragua just before the burning, and it looks to a lotof people like a clear pattern of influence. It seems logical to surmisethat the US was offering lots of money so Nicaragua could rebuild after thedevastation of Hurricane Mitch; they made the giving of that moneycontingent upon Nicaragua’s increased assistance with American anti-drugefforts. Maybe destroying our field was a test to see if the Nicaraguanswould follow Washington’s orders.”

USA in Central America

Of course, the history of US involvement in Latin America onlyserves to bolster Sanders’ claims. Under President Ronald Reagan, who nowcan’t even remember his own name due to Alzheimer’s Disease, the US in the1980’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting a civil war againstthe duly-elected Sandinista communist government.

American involvement in other Latin American countries, such as Chile, ElSalvador and Mexico, often consists of assassinations, subversion ofdemocratic principles, use of poisons on coca and cannabis plants,brutalization of indigenous peoples, CIA importation of cocaine into theUnited States with profits used to support US backed insurrections, and an

overall disrespect for international law and human rights.The disrespect that Latin Americans, Wirtshafter, Hemp Agro and Dr Wylieexperienced was also evident as I tried to get the US government to commenton its involvement in the Hemp Agro debacle.

I made numerous calls to the Washington DC headquarters of the DEA, finallyreaching the public relations unit. Then I was hung up on twice after beingon hold for at least ten minutes. I called back, and was put on hold foranother fifteen minutes.

When I finally reached DEA spokesperson “Rojene Waite,” she said she’d beenunable to take my call because she had been “busy researching a cold remedybeing sold on the Internet.”

“I’m trying to get the DEA’s side of the story regarding Hemp Agro inNicaragua,” I said.

“The US Information Service in Nicaragua is the only office that cancomment,” she said. “I cannot comment and I don’t have their number.””Look,” I replied, “do you realize how uncooperative this sounds to me? TheDEA is accused of interfering with the internal agricultural affairs of aforeign country, resulting in the imprisonment of a Canadian national andother negative effects on what we have been told is a legitimate Canadiancompany. Yet, the DEA refuses to comment, and you don’t even have the phonenumber of the people who can comment?”

“Don’t go there,” Waite replied in an annoyed manner. “Anybody who has anybrains could look up the number of the embassy in Managua. I don’t have thetime to do it.”

“Well I don’t have any brains, and I’ve spent lots of time on hold andgetting hung up on by your agency,” I replied. “I think that=20since youragency is directly involved in what happened, you should have theprofessionalism to provide the press with an explanation or at least withthe contact name and number of somebody who can provide one. Isn’t thatwhat a press officer is for?”

Silence, then Muzak. I am on hold again.Waite comes back on the line and gives me what she says is the number ofthe US embassy in Nicaragua. Then she hangs up. So much for being a politepublic servant.

US denies involvement

The person I reached at the US embassy in Managua was much morepleasant and forthcoming than Waite had been. Speaking on the condition ofanonymity, the spokesperson said: “DEA had very minimal involvement in thissituation.”

“Let me give you some context on this,” the spokesperson said. “As part ofthis hemisphere’s anti-drug efforts, DEA has had a field office inNicaragua for just over one year. DEA has a good relationship with theNicaraguan government. This involvement started in 1997, when Nicaraguarequested a DEA agent be placed here. We had a big press conference tointroduce him to everybody so they wouldn’t think he was robocop oranything. He is here to work with them, and he never acts unilaterally.”There is a severe misperception that DEA made this Hemp Agro thinghappen,” the spokesperson said. “At one point, the agent was asked to comein and look at the field. He went and made an inspection in the field.There were no lab tests, no microscopes used by him, as some have alleged.He then provided his opinion as to what those plants were. I cannotdisclose his opinion. Other tests were conducted by the Nicaraguangovernment. I categorically deny that DEA instigated what happened. It isabsolutely not true.

“We are surprised to hear people alleging that we caused the Nicaraguangovernment to do this. We are very aware of their sovereignty. That is whywe are here, to help them protect themselves from narcotraffickers who areexploiting their country. You look back on October 30, when the floodinghappened, and we were the first government to provide aid. There is noagreement that says we will only provide aid if Nicaragua torches hempfields. We have been here to help them all along. Our help is notcontingent upon them helping us.

“We are not changing any policies or procedures because of this situation,”the spokesperson continued. “We have no culpability in what happened. Allwe do is share information with the Nicaraguan government. This was theirdecision under their laws.”

Debts, dreams, determination

Regardless of the controversial differences of opinion about whathappened to Hemp Agro and why, it’s virtually certain that Sanders and hisassociates were on track to create a vibrant, new hemp industry in thetropics. The company’s innovative manufacturing and marketing plan is shownin a website flow chart that lists an impressive array of hemp productsincluding food, fibre, and building materials.

“This plant has no wasted parts. Everything it produces can be used forsomething. We even found that the seed hulls can be used. We knew that hempwould be especially useful for countries like Nicaragua. They had been hardhit by the hurricane and by the US wars, and they were going to cut downtheir trees to build places for people. We showed them how to use hemp, howto bring employment to their workers, how to grow a crop without using lotsof chemical garbage on it. It was a totally positive situation.”But now the positive situation has gone to hell, leaving Wylie and hispartners with debts, broken dreams and fear.

Wirtshafter, himself a veteran of drug war persecution who is increasinglyinvolved in Canada’s production of hemp seed oil, offered an intriguingexplanation for why America tried to kill Hemp Agro.

“I think the DEA knows that as long as Canadians are limited to usinginferior seed from Europe that they cannot get their growing situationrevved up where it needs to be,” he said. “With Hemp Agro’s development ofa tropical variety of hemp, the plant could have spread everywhere and hempwould be a dominant world crop. The DEA just does not want to see that.Sanders remains defiant.

“We went through an excruciating process of being investigated for possiblecriminal intent before they ever allowed us to grow down there. We provedtime and again that this was an industrial crop. Now, we are fighting forwhat is right. I don’t care how much money or time I have to spend. We aregoing to free Paul. We will be totally exonerated and are expecting a fullapology. And we will never give up on our determination to help CentralAmerica with hemp.”