Buju Banton Goes to Jail

Burnin' and Lootin' is a column by Robert Gordon that showcases upcoming artists, musicians, poets, and entertainers from the Caribbean. From Kingston to Miami to New York City and beyond the Caribbean continues to have a lasting cultural impact and each week we look at one individual or group that is helping to promote island culture through the arts.

“We nuh keep friend wid di informa type!” – Buju Banton (Hey Boy)

In late July 2009, Mark Myrie settled into his first-class seat on a flight from Madrid to Miami. He was getting ready to watch Ben-Hur and relax with a cocktail. As The Miami New Times tells the story, he ordered a mimosa and a man sitting next to him joked that he should order red wine instead because it is a more masculine drink. Mr. Myrie obliged. Small talk is pretty common, especially on long flights, so there was no reason for him to feel uneasy. After all, Mark was used to regularly meeting new people and living his life in the spotlight. This is because he happens to be a Grammy-award winning reggae artist who many consider to be one of the most influential Jamaican artists of the 1990s. Mark Myrie, better known by his stage name Buju Banton, is responsible for a number of chart topping hits like “Driver A,” “Not An Easy Road,” “Rasta Can’t Go,” and “Destiny.”

With more than eight hours to kill as they crossed the Atlantic, Banton and his new friend drank heavily. In one instance, the flight attendants had to tell them to tone down their semi-belligerent behavior and in another, “when a tipsy Buju was stopped coming back into first class from coach, the stranger vouched he was indeed supposed to be there, a gesture that made a lasting impression.” His new friend told him that his name was “Junior” and he ran a successful fish company – but more interestingly, that he had loose ties to the reggae industry. Banton’s curiosity was peaked.

The thing about meeting strangers and welcoming them into to one’s life is that there is an incredible amount to gain from other people’s experiences and there is something to the notion that new friends can be made anywhere, but at the same time it is equally difficult to identify who merely sees these meetings as an opportunity. It is hard to pinpoint who is predatory. “Junior” for instance, is really a Colombian national named Alexander Johnson. Johnson is a U.S. government informant with a lengthy criminal record and a number of financial incentives to land a “big fish” so to speak – and we’re not talking about snapper.

The Broward-Palm Beach New Times compiled some damning numbers that relate to his life:

700 - Number of kilos Alex Johnson said he was caught trying to bring into Miami in 1993.
21.5 - Years Johnson was sentenced to serve.
2.5 - Years he actually served.
16 - Years Johnson has been working as a confidential informant.
$3.3 million - Approximate amount of untaxed income he has earned working as a confidential informant.
$206,000 - Mean per-year salary as a professional snitch.
$898,500 - Price he paid for a home in a western Broward County gated community.
$50,000 - Paycheck he earned for the bust that netted Buju Banton.
$200,000 - Approximate amount Johnson owed the IRS in 2010, the same year he filed for bankruptcy and testified against Buju.

Keeping this in mind, it is hard to imagine that one of the most respected reggae singers of a generation – and an artist who would go on to win a Grammy the following year – would initiate a conversation with a stranger about drug trafficking. However, according to Johnson, after an intoxicated Banton saw that he had a lot of cash, which likely did not come from fishing, conversations about moving multi-kilogram amounts of cocaine began. This was later clarified during cross-examination that “[Buju] never sold or bought drugs and had never wired any money to him to invest in the illicit trade.” He also stated under oath that “Banton had never purchased any cocaine in Panama or Colombia and that their dealings never went beyond talk.”

Why a man who is a devout Rastafari and is known for songs like “Sensimillia Persecution” where he proudly sings, “why di fightin' sensimelia / mekin' way fah coke to come” – is having these type of conversations certainly raises questions, but it does not tell a complete story. Some people who are sympathetic to his case suggest he was presented with an opportunity (by a paid informant) to commit a crime he otherwise would not commit. Others argue that having a conversation about selling drugs and not actually capitalizing on the drug trade should not be a crime because there is no victim or public health risk. It is more of a restriction on freedom of speech than anything else. Some maintain Banton was experiencing financial strain and perhaps would have been tempted by Johnson’s offer. And then there are those who believe Banton fell victim to a most human trait: big talk. These defenders insist he entertained the conversation simply to project a certain image to his new friend.

Despite the variance in opinions and whatever his thinking was at the time, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa, Florida felt they had enough evidence to charge him with “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine,” along with a handful of other charges. The most controversial allegation related to possession of a firearm that was carried by Banton’s associate, James Mack. Under the Pinkerton Rule, if Banton was found guilty of participating in a criminal conspiracy jurors could also hold him liable for Mack’s gun. This charge was later thrown out because of jury misconduct and as of October 2015 the juror in question was charged with contempt for doing outside legal research during the trial.

One of the more surprising aspects of Banton’s case was the incredible amount of support he experienced from both fans and people in Jamaica’s music industry. His most outspoken supporters included the Marley family and dancehall heavyweight Spragga Benz. Stephen Marley even went as far as putting his South Florida home up as collateral for Banton’s bail and testified as a character witness in the trial. Despite the star power, jurors clung to two pieces of the prosecutor’s case, both of which stemmed from Banton and Johnson’s conversations. Unbeknownst to him, Banton spent that entire flight talking, laughing and drinking with his new friend – who would ensure all their future meetings were under audio surveillance. And then there was also what some have called Banton’s “Scarface” moment – a stunning video clip depicting him tasting “the product.”

It is worth noting that while his case was centered on cocaine, the drug that really brought down Banton was alcohol. Nearly every conversation Banton had with Johnson about drug trafficking came after heavy drinking, and even on the day they entered the police-controlled warehouse housing 20 “keys,” the duo met for lunch over margaritas beforehand. Banton later testified that when he was sober he felt uneasy about his friendship with “Junior” and even went as far as avoiding contact for four months while Johnson continued to call him regularly. The Miami New Times notes Banton was described in court as a braggart, “Yet at these meetings [with Johnson], Buju stumbled on details that might be common knowledge to an international drug trafficker. He mixed up kilos with pounds and underestimated certain costs. Johnson corrected him on several points.”

Nonetheless, there were still plenty of juicy sound bites. The line that ultimately sealed his fate was a simple, “Yo, find out how much he wants." These six words made the surveillance viable evidence and ultimately became the focal point of the Fed’s conspiracy case. Banton was painted as someone living a dual life – a reggae-singer by day and an international drug broker by night, someone who took the stage and logged studio hours but who also went around setting up major drug deals and taking a cut of the profits. Never mind the contradictory claims that emerged numerous times throughout the trial by lead prosecutor Jim Preston alleging that Banton was also somehow seeped in financial troubles of his own. Was he a Jamaican version of George Jung or a desperate opportunist hoping for some quick cash? The government never really made that part of their case clear. And they did not have to. The video footage of him taking a taste of white powder off a long knife like he was in an episode of Narcos was particularly damning. But again, should it have been? It was so cliché that it is hard to believe any experienced drug trafficker would reenact such theatrics.

On the day of the verdict, it seemed nearly anything could happen. How could someone with such an accomplished music career on the brink of a major revival get caught up in this type of conspiracy? This is a man who Stephen Marley testified under oath he has known for twenty years and never associated him with selling drugs, so why now? Why Buju?

There are no simple answers to these questions. If anything, this case highlights the pitfalls and trappings of the government’s use of confidential informants and the war on drugs more broadly. Banton was ultimately convicted of three of the four charges brought against him, while his alleged co-conspirators Ian Thomas and James Mack accepted plea deals to testify against him. They were sentenced to four and six-year deals respectively, while Banton – Alexander Johnson’s proverbial “big fish” – was slapped with ten years mandatory. His supporters have remained steadfast, however. Come January 2019, he will be released and deported back to Jamaica where reggae fans are already anticipating his arrival.

In the meantime, though, one of the island’s most beloved singers has been incarcerated and silenced for spoken words of the same ilk as an entire subgenre of American music. There is no disillusion that trap music’s popularity is rooted in tall tales and fabricated boasts about drug dealing. Rappers like Rick Ross have even built an entire persona around a real drug dealer’s legacy, yet despite the federal government’s inability to prove that the claims about Banton were true or that he even stood to gain financially from the deal, he will spend a decade behind bars. Buju Banton was essentially tried and convicted for trying to impress a stranger. It is so surreal a case that it begs a question: Had it not ensnared one of reggae’s most significant voices, might it otherwise have been overlooked and examined far less critically?

As Banton serves out the rest of his sentence, very little has changed in regards to the government’s dependence on confidential informants in drug cases. In Palm Beach County, Florida for instance – a little more than three hours away from where Banton was arrested – a recent information breach by a spokesman for West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio revealed an unprecedented amount of information about the DEA and local departments use of C.I.’s in drug stings. The revelation was so damning that local and federal officials have since admitted that numerous on-going cases were compromised and they are concerned that their informants’ lives could be at risk. This is but one example of how the C.I. policy can undermine its stated goals.

For Buju Banton it seems as if time has slowed. Aside from periodic news stories relating to his case, like the controversy over the juror who overstepped her boundaries by doing extrajudicial research, or the excitement that bubbles over when fans believe a new single has leaked, it is rare that he is framed as a P.O.W. in the war on drugs. Even more startling, one would think that such a high-profile case would present a prime opportunity to challenge the status quo regarding drug policy, but it has not. Many forget that he wakes up each morning in a privately operated correction facility in McRae, Georgia, where he will remain confined until the beginning of 2019.

Banton once sang, “It's not an easy road / Many see the glamour and the glitter / And think it's a bed of rose/ who feels it knows / Lord help me sustain these blows.” These words now hold eerie relevance given his incarceration. It has indeed become a very difficult road, but one that Banton has chosen to make the best of. He is currently working on his master’s degree in political science and economics, and continues to write songs at a prolific rate. He is expected to have multiple albums worth of material finished by the time that he is finally released. More Burnin' and Lootin':

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