SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- More of the cocaine smuggled to the United States is passing through the Caribbean, officials said, representing a shift in which drug traffickers are returning to a region they largely abandoned decades ago.
A full 14 percent of cocaine bound for the U.S. was trafficked through the Caribbean in the first half of 2013, double the 7 percent that came through the region during the same period a year earlier, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
“What we’re seeing is that traffickers are increasing the amount of cocaine in each” shipment, said Vito S. Guarino, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Caribbean division, based in Puerto Rico. “This is a shift toward the Caribbean. . . . And the picture we’re looking at right now will be the picture for the next few years.”
Underscoring Guarino’s point, the FBI on Tuesday said it had dismantled one of the most powerful gangs to operate in the Caribbean over the past two decades. The Puerto Rico-based drug trafficking group allegedly moved drugs from the Dominican Republic to users in the United States, earning more than $100 million along the way. Twenty-seven suspects were arrested.
Federal officials have consistently warned that such groups were likely to become more active in the Caribbean. But the new DEA numbers are among the first concrete evidence to show such a shift is underway.
Governments in the region, which have already seen a spike in drug-related crime, are receiving more U.S. aid and military assistance, but they appear ill-prepared to fight an increase in drug trafficking.
Criminal organizations are “establishing a series of trafficking points in the Caribbean to move products both to North America and to Europe — directly or via West Africa,” said Daurius Figueira, a Trinidad-based researcher and author of Cocaine Trafficking in the Caribbean and West Africa in the Era of the Mexican Cartel.
“In the Caribbean, there have been two strategies in response: The first is total denial and suppression of reality,” he said. “The second is to simply sit and wait for their territory to be ‘switched on.’ ”
Last month, William R. Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, told the Miami Herald that the Caribbean trafficking corridor of the 1970s and 1980s is “still around and will begin to look more attractive” to criminal organizations as they search for an alternative to Central America and Mexico.
The Dominican Republic — the largest transshipment point in the Caribbean — received 27 metric tons of cocaine in 2013, up from 22 tons a year earlier, according to the DEA figures.
The increase in the Caribbean came even amid an overall drop in the amount of cocaine shipped in the hemisphere, suggesting smugglers are confident they can take advantage of weak security in the region.
South American and Mexican criminal groups are using the islands’ largely unguarded coasts as landing points for high-speed boats carrying bundles of cocaine. Once on land, the drugs are moved on to the United States and Europe through shipping containers, mules (drug-carrying individuals) or by boat through Puerto Rico, Guarino said.
“We’re starting to see 1,000-kilo [2,200-pound] loads off the coast of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” he said. “It suggests that, No. 1, the capability to move those size shipments is there, and No. 2, the [traffickers] are more confident.”