ORANJESTAD, Aruba – When a white teenager from Alabama disappeared, the search drew people from every shade of the rainbow-hued population on Aruba, a Dutch Caribbean island where 52 ethnic groups coexist relatively peacefully and four of every 10 people are immigrants.
Still, the case brought questions about Aruba's race relations after two black men were quickly detained for investigation while three lighter-skinned men who were last seen with Natalee Holloway weren't taken into custody until later.
Arubans — who are descended from Africans, Asians, Europeans and indigenous Indians — are overwhelmingly adamant that the island has an unusual degree of colorblindness. Even defense lawyers and friends of the black men say race had nothing to do with it. Both men were released late Monday.
"Racism you have everywhere. But I refuse, as an intelligent person, to believe that the racial issue has influenced the Aruba justice system," said Noriana Pietersz (search), who is representing one of the two black men, Antonius "Mickey" John.
Alvin Cornett, a 33-year-old friend of the other black suspect, Abraham Jones, also discounted race as a factor on Aruba.
"It's a peaceful place between the races," he said.
Julia Renfro, editor of Aruba Today, said the English-language newspaper received 250 e-mails about race in Aruba after the detention of the black men, but none came from within Aruba. Renfro, a white American who has lived here for 15 years, said black Americans were jumping to false conclusions.
"It's not like the Dutch people walk around and order Arubans around," Renfro said.
Surinamese of East Indian descent on Aruba said they hadn't seen any backlash toward them since two brothers from their small community, Satish and Deepak Kalpoe, were taken into custody in the case along with a 17-year-old Dutch friend.
"The Arubans are kind and cooperative people. We've never had any problems here," said Raj Misier, the 52-year-old owner of a car rental company who has lived in Aruba for 11 years.
Aruba was claimed by the Spanish in 1499, but they didn't consider it worth colonizing and shipped the indigenous Arawak Indians (search) off to Hispaniola to work and die in the copper mines. The Dutch seized Aruba in 1636 and used it to graze livestock as a source of meat for other Caribbean islands.
In 1986, Aruba seceded from the Netherlands Antilles and became an autonomous Dutch territory that has been experiencing a construction boom fed by growing tourism. Offshore banking and oil refining also are important for the island, whose 97,000 people have average incomes of $22,000 a year.
Dutch is the official language, but almost everyone speaks Papiamento, a Creole language with vocabulary drawn from Spanish, Portuguese and English — a reflection of the island's varied population and history.
"Compared to other countries, racism is rather insignificant in Aruba," said political scientist Jocelyne Croes.
Croes' grandfather came to Aruba from Haiti in the 1950s. Her mother is Aruban, like her husband, who is an artist and gallery owner. She went to school with children of Aruban, Chinese and Dutch origin.
It wasn't until she attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts that she became conscious of color, Croes said. Because of her dark-olive skin, she was labeled as Hispanic, she said.
On Aruba, "there are a lot of interracial marriages," she said.
Some Arubans say that while race may not have played a role in the detentions, class could have. The Dutch man in police custody is the privileged son of a Justice Ministry official, and his two Surinamese friends are from a middle-class family.
The two blacks, meanwhile, live in a poor town of oil refinery workers. Cornett said his friend was taken in by police because he is "a regular guy."
Authorities insist they are doing everything they can to keep life safe and happy on the island, which has one of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean.
"We want this case to be solved as quickly as possible," said Prime Minister Nelson Oduber, who is of European and Arawak extraction. "On this island, nobody stands above the law."