DEA: Drug trafficking doubles in Caribbean

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.”

The larger, more valuable shipments, have been accompanied by an increase in drug-related violence as cartels and their agents work to establish themselves and control territory.

In mid-September, for example, Dominican authorities found a burned pickup truck with three bodies inside, including that of Juan Felix Cordero Febles, a cartel hit man allegedly responsible for as many as 50 murders. The men were killed, according to authorities, as part of a turf war between groups operating in the eastern part of the country.

Maj. Gen. Julio César Souffront Velázquez, head of the National Drug Control Agency, said the Dominican Republic’s location in the Greater Antilles, just 240 miles west of Puerto Rico, makes it a prime target.

“We have the presence of people that belong to Mexican and Colombian cartels,” he said at a press briefing last week.

Dominican authorities have set records for cocaine seizures in each of the past three years, and are on pace to top the nine tons they seized last year. Those seizures have led criminal groups to adjust their routes within the Caribbean.

The DEA said agents in the Caribbean and Bogotá have “intelligence obtained throughout numerous investigations [indicating] that go-fast vessels departing Venezuela and Colombia were heading straight to Puerto Rico and Haiti.”

The amount of cocaine shipped to Puerto Rico doubled to six tons in the past year, the DEA said. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is a key prize for traffickers, who can move illicit shipments to the U.S. mainland without the added risk of a customs inspection.

For Guarino, who began his career as an agent in Miami in the 1980s, Puerto Rico today is reminiscent of South Florida when it was the epicenter of the illicit drug trade.

“I see a similarity between Miami then . . . the days of the cocaine cowboys, and Puerto Rico now,” Guarino said, referring to the 1970s and ’80s-era drug trade that turned Miami into the most dangerous city in the United States. “It’s a very similar environment for drug traffickers.”

Puerto Rico’s homicide rate of 30.5 per 100,000 people in 2011, the most recent full year available, was more than six times that of the mainland U.S. That year, the government said almost half of the murders were drug-related.

The federal government has already ramped up assistance to the region, providing military training and other assistance, such as tracking drug boats by radar from Key West.

In 2010, the administration also launched the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, which dedicates at least $200 million to Caribbean countries over three years to fight drug trafficking.

The initiative is an attempt to prepare the islands for the increase in trafficking.

“We have been there before, and we did learn some lessons,” Brownfield told the Herald.