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Darkness falls on paradise island

From the top of the Hooiberg hill you can see all of the tiny island of Aruba, which is little more than a sliver of white sand set in the sparkling blue of the Caribbean. But Jim Greene, perched half-way up, is not here as a sun-seeking tourist. He is looking for a body.

Greene, who has come all the way from Colorado, has joined dozens of American volunteers scouring Aruba for teenager Natalee Holloway. ”This place would make a good dumping ground,” said Greene grimly, looking down from the Hooiberg at Red Cross workers surveying two murky ponds below him.

The quest has become an American obsession. Holloway, a blonde Southern belle freshly graduated from high school, has been missing on the Dutch island for a month. Her presumed murder has terrified US parents, risked economic disaster for Aruba and thrown a spotlight on a seamy underside of crime, drugs and drinking on an island that markets itself as ”paradise”. Now this little slice of heaven has turned ugly.

In the run-up to President George Bush’s speech on Iraq last week it was Holloway’s face, not the President’s, which ruled the US airwaves. Her story has all the classic ingredients: a beautiful victim, a playboy suspect, accusations of corruption in the highest places and an implacable amateur detective in Holloway’s mother, Beth Twitty.

But behind the headlines lurks an unpleasant media tale. It is how a young woman’s tragedy has been shamelessly used to boost the ratings in cable TV’s never-ending battles. And the awful truth that Natalee’s death would not have rocked America so much if she had been black. Or Asian. Or poor. Or a boy.

Natalee Holloway was embarked on an American rite of passage that mimics the annual trek by British teenagers to the beaches of Spain and Greece. By the planeload, fresh-faced Americans head to the Caribbean in search of sunny skies, the opposite sex and as much drink as they can handle. At Carlos’n Charlie’s bar last week in Aruba’s capital of Oranjestad, the rite was in full swing. Barely dressed young teens gyrated on the dance floor and beer was sold — literally — by the yard in long, fluted glasses.

A month ago this is where Holloway was last seen alive on the final day of her graduation holiday. It was 1.30am and she drunkenly climbed into a car with three young men: Dutch teen Joran van der Sloot and two Aruban brothers, Deepak and Satish Kalpoe.

That is all we know for sure. The boys, all now in jail, told police they drove to a lighthouse beauty spot in the north of the island. Van der Sloot and Holloway, who had been kissing in the backseat, were then let out at a nearby beach. Van der Sloot says he walked Holloway down the beach and then said goodbye. He headed home. Holloway was never seen again.

That is the simple version. But the three originally claimed to have let Holloway off at her hotel, the Holiday Inn. They said she stumbled into the arms of a hotel security guard. But another story emerged after two of the inn’s guards were arrested. Now it seems the Kalpoe brothers did let van der Sloot and Holloway out of the car together.

What happened next is a mystery. Early in the investigation, Aruba’s deputy police commissioner, Gerold Dompig, said one of the boys admitted ”something bad” had happened to Holloway. Since then the three’s stories have shifted as regularly as Aruba’s sand dunes.

But the shocking fact is that the three were only identified as suspects due to the efforts of Beth Twitty, who descended on the island from Alabama like an avenging angel. She interviewed Holloway’s holiday friends to find out her last movements. She claimed to have swiftly identified van der Sloot from video obtained in a local casino. She confronted the boy and told the authorities that the three had been the last people to see her daughter alive.

Only then, many days after Holloway had been reported missing, did the Aruban police arrest the boys. Such inaction has smacked of a mix of incompetence, Holloway’s family says. Van der Sloot’s father, Paul, is a respected judge on the island. The family is part of the island’s social elite. Joran, despite being 17, was a regular in the casinos. He and the Kalpoe brothers are well known on the island’s social scene, regulars at bars frequented by the young Americans.

Paul van der Sloot denies there has been a cover-up but agrees he briefed his son on the legal implications of being a suspect in Holloway’s disappearance. Aruba’s chief prosecutor, Karin Janssen, claims Van der Sloot said he told the boy: ”Without a body, there is no case.”

The elder van der Sloot has also been arrested, but was later released after several days of questioning.

Further confusion arose on Friday after Janssen reversed previous denials and claimed that the boys had been charged with murder more than three weeks ago. She said the news had not been released to protect the feelings of Holloway’s family during the search.

Government spokesperson Ruben Trapenberg also faced questions as to why late last week two of the three boys were transported together, apparently giving them the opportunity to compare or arrange their stories. Trapenberg said it had been done to monitor secretly what they might tell each other. It is an unconventional way of doing justice.

Suddenly Aruba’s paradise has started to look tarnished. Race has also reared its head. Much has been made of the delays in arresting any suspects — including the van der Sloots — while the two security guards, who were both black, were picked up swiftly. It has also cast a spotlight on the island’s nightlife, rife with copious booze and fuelled by illicit drugs. Dealers lurk outside some bars, whispering to passers-by to see if they want to score. Rumours claim that among the clientele of Carlos’n Charlie’s are those overfond of the use of ”date rape” drugs in spiked drinks. That has sparked outlandish speculation as American news reports have mentioned Aruba’s vulnerability to laundered drug money. Some TV reporters even mentioned the possibility of white slave traders, fuelling a spiralling media hysteria about the island.

For the Aruban authorities it has been a public relations disaster. It is also deeply unjustified. The tiny island, whose 100 000 population is crammed into a space smaller than Manhattan, has only had one murder so far this year. Crime is rare. Drugs are less common than in any comparable US city. ”We’ve been misportrayed of fantastical things from a high-level government cover-up, to drug cartel, to prostitution and slavery”, said an exasperated Trappenberg. ”We are not Pirates of the Caribbean.”

But the media machine is in full swing. The US TV networks CNN and Fox are camped on the island. They have flown out star reporters and launched broadsides at the authorities. In one dramatic scene, Twitty visited the van der Sloot housewith a Fox TV crew, to confront the family. After finding Paul van der Sloot hiding behind a bush, she spent 90 emotional minutes with the parents of the boy now charged with the murder of her daughter. It was astonishing television.

No one could blame Holloway’s family for milking the media for all they can. Twitty and Holloway’s natural father, David, grant interview after interview. Stunts are staged almost daily. On Wednesday there was a church service for Natalee. On Thursday islanders and tourists formed a human chain. Every day Twitty hits the streets to hand out flyers and prayer cards. She looks pale and tired and says she has lost 10lb since she arrived. But she is careful to praise the Arubans for all their help. Lamp posts are festooned with yellow ribbons, the traditional Southern remembrance of those missing from their homes.

The islanders’ response has been huge. Shortly after Holloway went missing every government worker was told to take the day off and help the search. Dutch marines have joined the hunt. A Texas-based charity equipped with divers, helicopters and sonar has landed on the island. For the family that is a great boon at a time of trauma. But there is an ugly underside to all the media attention. For the fact remains that America last month had 47 600 active missing persons cases. More than half were men. Almost a third were black.

Yet it is always cases such as Holloway’s that win the headlines. She joins a list of American obsessions like Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, Chandra Levy and Lori Hacking. All obsessed the media in recent years. All are pretty, middle-class and white. ”To be blunt, blonde white chicks who go missing get covered, and poor, black, Hispanic or other people of colour who go missing do not get covered,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Yet in the middle of the media storm is a simple story. A young woman with her life in front of her is almost certainly dead. Her mother and father are grieving and want to find out why. It is a terrible tragedy for the Holloways. It is not a national disaster for America.

Perhaps that is why the crowds at Carlos’n Charlie’s were still in full swing on Saturday. The beer was still flowing and young people were still dancing. ”It is terrible, what happened. But we are here for a holiday,” said 18-year-old Kristen, a student from Texas.

In paradise, it seems, the party never really stops. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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