Caribbean struggles to stem drug trade

By Robin Wigglesworth

As night descended on the Caribbean on October 17, a US Coast Guard patrol aircraft spied something suspicious in the seas south of St Croix, one of the many beautiful specks of land that make up the US Virgin Islands: a 30-foot speedboat with three people aboard, loaded with bales and slicing through the waves toward Puerto Rico.

A Coast Guard cutter and a specialised pursuit boat were dispatched from Puerto Rico to intercept the speedboat. Before dawn had broken, the coastguardsmen boarded and found more than a tonne of cocaine, with a wholesale value of more than US$34 million. The Coast Guard was thrilled at the haul, hailing the “complex and dangerous operation” undertaken in the dead of night. But it was a rare triumph. US and regional law enforcement agencies have been struggling to stem a resurgent tide of drugs flowing through the Caribbean.

After a relatively calm two decades, during which Mexico emerged as the dominant smuggling point for trafficking drugs into the US, local and international officials say the Caribbean is once again becoming an important transit route, as cartels take advantage of the region’s economic problems. Criminals are reactivating old operations in the archipelago or beefing up existing ones in places such as the Dominican Republic.

The US Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that 14 per cent of all cocaine smuggled into the US in the first half of the year came via the Caribbean—twice the rate of 2012. “It’s acute when you consider that the overall flow [into the US] is down,” says Vito Guarino, DEA special agent in charge of Caribbean operations.

It is still a far cry from the 1980s, when up to 75 per cent of the cocaine seized between South America and the US was taken in the Caribbean, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The unremitting flow of cocaine into Florida in particular inspired cultural touchstones like the movie Scarface and Miami Vice, the US television series.

But the recent surge still worries US and Caribbean officials, who fear the region is acutely vulnerable to traffickers. Many countries are trying to cope with a protracted economic downturn and mounting debts, which are forcing governments to hack away at budgets and pushing up unemployment.

“You’re unemployed and starving, and someone offers you $1,000 to take a go-fast boat full of drugs to the US. What would we do in this situation?” Guarino says.

The region is also paying the price of successes elsewhere. Analysts say one of the big reasons why cartels are re-establishing themselves in the Caribbean is the clear security improvement in Mexico. As police “squeeze the narco balloon” there, it swells in the tropical islands to the east, according to Daniel Sachs, a Mexico-based analyst at Control Risks, a consultancy.

The impact is invidious. Cartels frequently ally themselves with local gangs on islands like Trinidad, paying for protection and smuggling services with guns and drugs. That feeds domestic drug abuse and exacerbates already high crime rates, as heavily armed local gangs fight for lucrative turf and cartel contracts. These gangs are the cause of the region’s extreme murder rates, argues Owen Ellington, head of Jamaica’s police force.

Moreover, drug money can buy many friends in a region, where even an army gene­ral or senior police officer will often make only a few thousand dollars a month, and political donations and spending usually go unreported, activists and diplomats say.

Security officials say the Dominican Republic is the main transshipment point for drugs bound for the US and Europe, due to the cultural and linguistic ties with the cocaine-producing countries in South and Central America. However, smaller statelets like St Kitts and Nevis, which simply cannot afford to defend their coasts, are the ones that have arguably suffered the most from the increase in trafficking.

Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, estimates about half his country’s murders are directly tied to the drug trade. “The bulk of the drugs is for the US and European markets, but [the traffickers] bring guns with them,” he complains.

US and international officials are keenly aware of the resurgent danger, and have launched a number of programmes in response. The US government established a Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) in 2009 to provide countries with technical assistance, equipment and training to combat crime and drug smuggling. This includes setting up detection-dog units, improving prisons, providing cargo scanners, polygraphs and interceptor boats, and sharing more information with local security forces. The CBSI has spent US$263 million on various initiatives since it was established in 2009, according to the US state department. Local politicians say it has helped to improve their capabilities, but argue it is trifling compared with the scale of the problem.”The resources deployed under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative can be described as a drop in the bucket,” said Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.

Optimism is in short supply. Even if the US and regional law enforcement succeed in staunching the drug flow, this could paradoxically lead to an increase in violence, as local gangs and cartels fight over a smaller pie, notes Amado de Andrés, the UNODC’s regional representative. He points out that bloodshed in Jamaica increased dramatically even as it became a less important transit point for cocaine in the 1990s. Mexico has seen a similar trend more recently.

In many countries, there appears to be resignation that drugs trafficking will always be a challenge, and concern the problem will inevitably worsen in the coming years. “We’re right in the middle of the world’s biggest producer and consumer of drugs,” observes Bernardo Vega, a former Dominican central bank governor and ambassador to the US.

“If only they could grow cocaine in the Rocky Mountains,” he sighs.

• The Financial Times spent two weeks reporting across the Caribbean, travel funded in part by

the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting,

to explore the impact of the region’s

economic downturn. —


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