Santo Domingo -- In mid-October, a group of alleged drug traffickers gathered at a club here to toast a major deal: The pending shipment of more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine.
When the drugs arrived a few days later, by speedboat from South America, they were unloaded on a beach in southwest Dominican Republic. According to the plan, they were supposed to be loaded into a shipping container in Santo Domingo, the country’s busiest seaport, and then move to Europe.
But a little more than a week after the men celebrated, the shipment was seized and they were in jail.
Key to the operation was a security team assembled at the port. Made up of U.S. and Dominican anti-narcotics agents, the team also had seized 1,700 pounds of cocaine from a shipping container bound for the Netherlands months earlier. That provided the information that put authorities on the trail of the alleged drug traffickers.
Security at Dominican ports has taken center stage in a widening scandal involving New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and his friend and donor Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor with vast political connections in the Dominican Republic. Melgen’s West Palm Beach offices were raided in January as part of a probe of Medicare billing and separately the FBI is investigating his relationship with Menendez and the trips they took on the doctor’s private plane to the Dominican Republic.
Melgen’s business interests extend beyond eye surgery and he owns a controlling interest in ICSSI, a Dominican company that holds an exclusive contract with the Dominican government to install X-ray machines at ports to help search for drugs and contraband. The machines have not been installed because the contract has been held up in court over what critics say are exorbitant costs and its anticompetitive language.
Menendez, a Democrat, has pushed Obama administration officials to pressure the Dominican government to honor the contract. Likewise, Melgen’s Dominican relatives, including a prominent lawyer and the nation’s drug czar, have spoken publicly about the need for X-ray machines at the ports, linking them to national security.
Port officials and security experts told The Herald that x-ray scanners are useful tools they would welcome.
But while the contract to install the machines founders in court, the ports, with heavy assistance from U.S. agencies, have ramped up their search for drugs using alternative means.
Last year, the security team that operates from the largest port, Multimodal Caucedo, helped seize roughly 4,600 pounds of cocaine, or roughly 19 percent of all cocaine captured in the country during a record-setting year, according to statistics from the Dominican National Office for Drug Control, a military unit.
“X-ray machines are a tool that we see as being useful in addition to the other inspection measures that we have in place,” said Morten Johansen, executive director of DP World Caucedo, part owner of the private port. “What’s more important is the collaboration with the authorities, both local and from the United States, and that the port is making the proper investments in security.”
The Dominican Republic is a major Caribbean transshipment point for drugs moving north from South America. Until recent years, drug traffickers bombarded the island with bundles of cocaine tossed out of small planes. But they’re shifting tactics.
“Now that the Dominican Republic has essentially eliminated drug trafficking by air, we are seeing an increase in narcotics activities in Dominican ports,” Daniel L. Foote, U.S. Embassy deputy chief of mission, said in a meeting with the Dominican Shipping Association. “We are in the process of talking with Dominican officials about the possibility of helping to arrange for a greater [US] presence.”
Among the possibilities is training more drug-sniffing dogs for the ports, he said.
While important, the X-ray machines do not appear to be as integral to controlling drug trafficking as Melgen’s supporters have suggested.
Melgen’s cousin, the lawyer Vinicio “Vinicito” Castillo, called it a matter “of national security, for the United States and our country” in a press conference last week. “Five million containers pass through the ports and less than 5 percent are X-rayed,” he said. “And the only machine … is only capable of scanning empty [shipping] containers.”
But port officials said fewer than 1.5 million containers pass through the ports each year. And that machine — donated in 2006 by the U.S. government — “only scans full containers,” Johansen said. Empty containers are inspected by other means.
Using the machine, Dominican ports already screened roughly the same percentage of containers as other ports in the region.
Inside a squat administration building just outside the entrance of Multimodal Caucedo, Dominican military and U.S. customs agents monitor intelligence and incoming shipping manifests looking for red flags.
If a container is flagged, the shipment is sent to the X-ray machine, a simple rectangular blue metal structure attached to a small trailer.
As a container passes through, a picture of its contents is relayed to monitors . A security officer then compares the pictures to the shipping manifest. If the image and manifest don’t match, the container is opened and manually inspected, security officials said.
Currently, there is no charge when a container is scanned, Johansen said.
Under its contract, ICSSI could charge nearly $100 per container. Estimates have put the 20-year value of the contract at between $500 million and $1 billion. Dominican officials have balked at the cost of the contract and the fact that it gives ICSSI a monopoly. Calls to phone numbers listed for ICSSI’s Santo Domingo office were not returned.
The exclusive contract appears to have already harmed Dominican ports. The U.S. was prepared to donate an X-ray machine to the port of Haina, the country’s second busiest, a business official told The Herald.
That claim was verified in an investigative report by Dominican magazine La Lupa Sin Trabas. A U.S. State Department official declined to comment because the Senate Ethics Committee is investigating the case.
The port deal and Menendez’s involvement surfaced after The Daily Caller, a conservative news website, published allegations that Menendez, Melgen and Castillo had hired prostitutes for parties at Melgen’s Dominican vacation home. The District Attorney of Santo Domingo has opened an investigation to find the source of the allegations.