Issues & Ideas

Caribbean drug flow increases concern U.S.

For years, Caribbean governments have voiced concerns that U. S. counter-narcotics efforts in Mexico and Central America would force drug traffickers back into their region to push their products on go-fast boats and cargo ships.

Those fears are being realized as a top State Department official said the U.S. is concerned about disturbing increases in drugs flowing through the Caribbean over the past there years.

“I do not wish to suggest that the amount of product flowing through the Caribbean even remotely approaches the levels of Central America and Mexico,” said William Brownfield, assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. “The disturbing thing is the trend line.”

Brownfield’s comment came just days ahead of the United Nation’s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in which foreign governments are asked to reflect on drug fighting efforts. It also comes on the heels of a visit earlier this month by Vice President Joe Biden to the Dominican Republic where the drug trade was a leading topic with President Danilo Medina.

“They agreed there has been a substantial amount of progress on this issue in the hemisphere. The demand for cocaine in the United States has dropped more than 40 percent in the past seven years. The production of cocaine in Colombia is down well over 50 percent. We find increasing interdiction and interference with flows through Mexico, and Central America,” Brownfield said.

But that is not the case in the Caribbean, which remains a victim of its geography, Brownfield said. The region is strategically located almost directly between the drug route from South America to North America and in the middle of an east-west axis from the Americas to western African and western Europe. This is not only influencing the increase in trafficking but growing concerns over organized crimes gaining a foothold in countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, where a special state prosecutor and independent senator was gunned down in her SUV in May.

Brownfield’s office has spent more than $150 million to help fight crime, including increasing intelligence and information sharing among regional police departments. The U.S., he said, also remains committed to the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, a regional security plan.

Brownfield recently spoke with regional journalists ahead of the meeting of Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders, which begins Tuesday in Antigua. Below is an edited excerpt:

There is currently a debate in the Caribbean on relaxing marijuana laws. How do you expect it to impact the anti-drug fight?

First, we say that all governments of the planet should continue to endorse the three U.N. international drug control conventions. We have to interpret those conventions with some degree of flexibility. We must tolerate different governments representing different realities and producing different national policies on drugs. So, as long as we stay within the basic international conventions, we have to accept that some countries will proscribe marijuana aggressively while others, say Uruguay within the last two or three months, will legalize it throughout the country. We all acknowledge and agree that whatever our views may be on legalization of marijuana, its consumption and possession, that we are all united in our determination to resist, combat, fight and defeat the large transnational criminal organizations that traffick in the product for profit and cause so much personal, family, social and economic harm to all of our communities around the world.

Has the Caribbean Community sought the U.S.’s input on the marijuana debate?

To my knowledge, we have not been consulted formally by Caricom as an institution or for that matter even its individual member states in terms of our position on marijuana legalization.

Other than geography, what are the other factors influencing the increase in drugs flowing through the Caribbean?

Drug trafficking organizations, large multinational, multi-billion dollar businesses, are intelligent, flexible, adaptable and they will move their operations in response to what the governments are doing to resist them. That makes it more likely, not less so, that they will move increasingly into the Caribbean. Second, they search for governments and countries, which because of their size, their population, their degree of development, they believe offers vulnerabilities that they can exploit.

Can you elaborate on the Caribbean drug flow trend that has you concerned?

The figure was 5 percent in 2011; 9 percent in 2012; 16 percent in 2013. Most of this is cocaine though increasingly, we do see some signs of heroine and methamphetamine.

What are the main routes that traffickers are using?

Historically, there are three routes by which traffickers over the last 30 years have moved products through the Caribbean. There is the western route, which either parallels the Central American mainland or works its way into or through Jamaica en route normally, but not always to the United States and the U.S. market; a central route, which process through Hispaniola, and that means either Haiti or the Dominican Republic. And that route has represented, at least over the last two years in our opinion, the lion share, an absolute and overwhelming majority of the amount of product that we believe is transiting the Caribbean on the way to market. The third and at this point, a small but growing percentage, is the eastern Caribbean route.

The U.S. is a major market for illicit drugs. Would not reducing demand help diminish supply?

The consumption of cocaine in the United States has dropped almost 50 percent in the last seven years. The consumption of methamphetamine has dropped more than 50 percent over the last seven years. So the two illicit drugs that have most been driving the drug trafficking industry for the last 40 years are down dramatically in terms of their demand in the United States. It suggests that this is a bit more complicated than simple supply and demand.

You mentioned that a criminal organization with operations in Trinidad and Tobago was behind Special State Prosecutor Dana Seetahal’s death in May. Can you elaborate on this?

This was quite clearly not a crime of passion. This was not a crime of opportunity. People did not just happen by and believe that they could steal her pocketbook and then find that they had to open fire in order to accomplish this. This was a carefully planned operation, and there’s only one kind of entity that does contract murders of this sort of degree, of sensitivity, and that is organized crime. Now, am I saying it was an international player that ordered it? No. I am saying it was a criminal organization that clearly had a presence in Trinidad and Tobago, which decided to perform this repulsive and repugnant act.