Buju Banton: brother behind bars

Garry Steckles is horrified at the plight of dancehall star Buju Banton

Buju Banton. Photograph by Jonathan Mannion

I’ve seldom felt as outraged as I am about the legal horror story that has put one of Caribbean music’s pre-eminent singer/songwriters behind bars for a sizeable chunk of what should be the most productive era of his life.

As many readers of Caribbean Beat – and particularly those from Jamaica – will be aware, Buju Banton, the hit-making, Grammy-winning reggae superstar, is serving a ten-year sentence in a US prison. The gravel-voiced Banton, who has had more No 1 hits in Jamaica than even Bob Marley, and whose songs like “Untold Stories”, “Destiny”, “Murderer”, “23rd Psalm” and “Rastafari” are regarded as reggae classics, is in jail largely because he has a loose tongue and because he was sitting in the wrong seat on the wrong plane at the wrong time.

Banton had just wound up a successful European tour and was returning to his Florida home in July 2009 when he found himself next to an outgoing man on a flight from Madrid to Miami. There wasn’t the slightest indication that his travelling companion had only one objective – to ruin him.

Banton hadn’t a clue that Alexander Johnson, the amiable Colombian whose boastful talk of business accomplishments and opportunities in the cocaine business helped pass the time on the eight-hour flight, was on the payroll of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). That he was a criminal who, since serving a three-year sentence for a drug offence, had been working for the American government and had made millions of dollars from tempting people to say and do things that would add them to the roster of the nation’s prison inmates.

Banton was the DEA stalker’s next prey and, almost exactly two years later, he would be sentenced for his tenuous involvement in a drug deal that the prosecution conceded he had put no money into and had not profited from, and that his lawyer insists he didn’t even know was happening.

What has happened to Banton is horrifying – and  not just because he’s one of the most accomplished and beloved stars in the reggae firmament and appears, by any logical yardstick, to be the victim of entrapment. What really scares me is that it’s a horror story that could happen to anyone. The US government, despite having well over two million people behind bars, appears determined to up the figure by tempting citizens and residents, pretty much at random, to break the law. Which was why, a few days after Banton was sentenced in a Florida court, I asked his lawyer, David Oscar Markus, if Johnson had been deliberately targeting the singer for some reason. If, perhaps, Banton had made enemies in high places, and the informant had been assigned to entrap him.

Markus’s response was illuminating. “As far as we know, it was a coincidence. Just horrible bad luck…Alexander Johnson is anyone’s worst nightmare.”

That he was the victim of bad luck will be of scant consolation to Banton, who, by his own admission, fell foolishly into the informant’s trap.

Before their flight had touched down in Miami, Banton had indicated to Johnson that he might be interested in financing a cocaine transaction, and the pair met for lunch the following day – at which stage Banton, on sober reflection, tried to distance himself from his new acquaintance.

But the informant smelled blood (or to be more precise, the $50,000 he stood to make for getting the singer convicted), which is something he openly admitted in court, where he testified that Banton repeatedly cancelled meetings and cut short phone calls, if he answered Johnson’s calls at all. Chillingly, Johnson also testified that he always remained determined to put Banton behind bars. “I was doing the job I was doing from day one,” said the Colombian, who has made more than $3 million in his career as an informant. He also admitted trying to get the singer drunk so he would let his guard down: “It’s part of the game I’m playing.”

Banton, meanwhile, told the court: “I’m just a simple musician; I was talking over my head. I was trying to impress this guy and that’s what got me into this hot seat right now.”

In yet another disastrous coincidence, an old friend of the singer, Ian Thomas, showed up in Miami a few months later. Banton introduced Thomas to Johnson, and they were soon talking about a cocaine deal.

And, once again, Johnson set out to snare Banton. He invited him, along with Thomas, on an outing to a Sarasota warehouse in December 2009, purportedly to take a look at a boat he used for business purposes. At the warehouse, Banton was confronted with a package of cocaine, and invited to taste it. Which, foolishly, he did. All of which was being filmed by the DEA and was used as evidence against him. Two days later, Thomas and another man (whom Banton had never even met), were busted in a DEA “sting” operation. Banton was then arrested at his Miami home and charged with conspiracy to traffic in cocaine and two related offences. His friend Thomas, meanwhile, agreed to testify against him as part of a plea bargain to get his own sentence reduced.

Banton’s first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. He was found guilty in a second trial, and eventually sentenced to ten years. He’s expected to be released after no more than six, which is much better than had been feared but still strikes me as a big chunk of life to lose because of a lousy coincidence and a big mouth.

Banton’s lawyer, meanwhile, remains confident he will ultimately obtain justice for the man he has defended so passionately. ?

“We will be appealing and are very optimistic about it,” says Markus. And, he adds: “The rock in all of this is Buju – he has never wavered in his innocence; he is, amazingly, still positive and optimistic and has been one of the most special clients I have ever had. He is like a brother to me in every sense of the word.”