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.