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Cocaine shipments through the Caribbean on the rise

Smugglers being forced to use alternative routes following crackdowns in Mexico

The amount of drugs smuggled through the Caribbean has increased over the last two years.
The amount of drugs smuggled through the Caribbean has increased over the last two years. AFP

At midnight on April 9, a US Customs border patrol discovered a 1.5-ton cocaine shipment on board a high-speed boat heading for the US territory of Puerto Rico. Following a hot pursuit, the seizure was made in Patillas, a municipality on the island’s southeast coast.

On March 31, a similar boat was stopped when it was trying to smuggle 1.77 tons of cocaine, which was headed for Dorado, another Puerto Rican municipality known for its golf and beach resorts.

These seizures are not uncommon. At least 16 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States from Colombia and Central America enters through the Caribbean. But there has been a sharp increase in the number of drug shipments over the past year.

“In the past three to five years, the amount of cocaine that is shipped through the Caribbean has increased by between five and 16 percent,” said Vito Salvatore Guarino, the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s special agent in charge in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during an interview with EL PAÍS.

“Years back, some 70 metric tons of drugs passed through the region, but today that figure stands between 90 and 100 metric tons per year,” he said.

They travel at night in secret boats headed for Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico”

During the 2013 fiscal year, which ended in October, US authorities made more than 1,500 arrests and confiscated as much as 28 metric tons of drugs in the Caribbean. But just during the first two months of the 2014 fiscal year, authorities have seized nine metric tons and arrested 183 persons in connection with trafficking.

The routes for most smugglers are the same. “They travel at night in secret boats headed for Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Others use the eastern Caribbean, but the majority of the cocaine comes through Dominican Republic,” Guarino said.

The shipments are usually divided, with half of the drugs headed for Europe and the rest to the United States. In some cases, they make their entry with the help of corrupt local authorities.

On April 8, 2013, Dominican authorities extradited the former director of the country’s national drug control agency, Navy Admiral Francisco Hiraldo, to the United States, to face charges that he allegedly helped protect traffickers in exchange for a $100,000 payoff for each shipment.

The shipments are usually divided with half of the drugs headed for Europe and the rest to the United States

Jamaica – which for years has been the number-one supplier of marijuana for US consumers – has now become a transshipment point for drugs coming out of Central America. In the US State Department's International Drug Control Strategy Report, released in March, authorities point out that some drug-trafficking organizations exchange Jamaican marijuana for cocaine.

“Drugs leaving Jamaica are bound for the United States, Canada and other Caribbean nations. However, marijuana and cocaine are also trafficked from Jamaica into the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands,” the report states.

US and Caribbean authorities have said they expected this upward trend in the region as a result of the ongoing anti-drug operations in Mexico and Central America, but this direction has caused concerns at the United Nations.

Washington has invested $200 million under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative to tackle the problem

Yury Fedotov, director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), warned in a report on transnational organized crime released in 2012 that the new routes through the Caribbean should be considered “a threat” to regional stability.

Earlier this month, Fedotov announced in New York the creation of a new program to help the Caribbean Community (Caricom) deal with this problem. Some $11.7 billion will be destined for a two year period, with most of the financing coming from the European Union, United States and Canada.

During a lightning visit to the region last year, US Vice President Joe Biden discussed the issue with 15 leaders of the Caricom nations in Trinidad, and reminded them that Washington has invested $200 million since 2010 under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative for them to help tackle this problem.

However, some crime experts in the region complain that Washington refuses to share security intelligence information on its own anti-drug operations with the governments of the islands.

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