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Special Report: US sees shift in cocaine trafficking (Feb. 9, 2012)
Written by By Jason Smith   
Friday, 17 February 2012 12:12

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The fight to stop cocaine smuggling in the Caribbean is a bit like playing the arcade game Whac-a-Mole: Marine police officers demonstrate the use of the police boat Swift Justice in January. Officials hope that the newly acquired vessel will help in the fight against drug trafficking. Photo: NGOVOU GYANG Just when law enforcement officers clamp down in one area, traffickers seem to shift their operations elsewhere in the region. Elsewhere, United States officials fear, is increasingly the waters of the Eastern Caribbean and Virgin Islands, according to a recently released report.

The report comes in the wake of several high-profile arrests and multimillion-dollar cocaine seizures in the territory in recent years. But VI law enforcement officials say the region has always been a “hot spot,” and they haven’t noticed a rise in drug activity lately.

Instead, VI police and customs officials point to recent successful operations as evidence that international cooperation, additional resources and emphasis on seizing traffickers’ assets are impacting the trade.

“The message we’re trying to get across, and I think we are, is that the BVI is no longer an easy option for the drugs trafficker,” said police Superintendent Alwin James.

Trafficking trends

The “Drug Market Analysis 2011” report, which details trafficking patterns in Puerto Rico and the USVI and includes this territory, states that the area’s “overall drug threat” has remained “relatively consistent” over the past year.

The report was conducted by the US Department of Justice for the Puerto Rico and USVI High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which includes representatives of several law enforcement agencies. But the report notes that Colombia- and Dominican Republic-based drug trafficking groups are increasingly using Venezuela as a trans-shipment point instead of the DR.

That trend is in part due to the success of Operation Broken Bridge, a joint initiative of the US and DR governments, the report speculated. The operation relied on Customs and Border Patrol Blackhawk helicopters to target cocaine traffickers operating at night in rural parts of the DR, according to a 2008 US Department of State cable made public in 2010 by the website Wikileaks. The cable added that the operation was temporarily halted after traffickers shot at the helicopters and customs officers raised concern that they couldn’t carry weapons within the DR.

According to Rodney Benson, the chief of intelligence for the US Drug Enforcement Agency, more than half of the cocaine that transits the Caribbean transits the DR.

In his December testimony to a US Congressional sub-committee, Mr. Benson added that Mexican cartels are moving into the DR as a way to escape violent turf wars at home. The intelligence chief said traffickers are continuing to use a variety of smuggling methods, including airdrops, but the use of “go fast” boats remains the most prevalent.

Airdrops

According to the 2011 analysis report, the number of “suspect noncommercial flights” leaving Venezuela for the DR decreased between 2008 and 2010 at the same time that flights bound for VI waters from Venezuela “modestly increased.” In spite of the shift in flight patterns, the DR remains the “principal transit area” for cocaine and heroin smuggled into VI waters, the report stated. In some cases, traffickers are dropping large bales of cocaine from the planes to be retrieved by teams on the ground.

Though the report does not specifically mention the incident, on Sept. 28, 2010, American and VI law enforcement agencies seized more than 260 kilograms of cocaine reportedly airdropped near Norman Island. Three men found in a boat nearby were arrested immediately after the incident and face possible extradition to the US on drug charges.

That airdrop was intercepted on the basis of prior intelligence, according to the VI police’s chief inspector, Tom Murray. Without such intelligence, it’s hard for officials to predict where airdrops will occur, Mr. Murray said in a recent interview.

“They’re not easy to detect, which is why they use them,” he added.

But airdrops aren’t the only method smugglers use, and they are decreasing compared to smuggling that takes place aboard yachts and shipping containers, among other means, according to VI Customs Commissioner Wade Smith.

“They’re using more pleasure crafts to do the trafficking. It’s a little more difficult to spot than an airdrop,” Mr. Smith said.

For example, he said, last August VI law enforcement agencies assisted in an investigation that led to what United Kingdom officials called the “largest cocaine bust” in that country’s history. About 1.2 tonnes of cocaine valued at between $78 million and $472 million was seized aboard the 65-foot yacht Louise.

Based on intelligence, officers in the UK suspected something was amiss, Mr. Smith said. Dogs were brought in, but they couldn’t smell anything. Eventually, experts from the yacht’s manufacturer were consulted, and under some of the Louise’s fiberglass panels, cocaine was discovered, Mr. Smith said.

“[Traffickers] remove sections of the boat and they place it between the fiberglass panels, and they finish it off, almost as good as factory, so it makes it extremely difficult to detect by the average eye,” Mr. Smith said.

A similar method was also used to hide 59 kilograms of cocaine in 2008 aboard the catamaran Liseron, a yacht docked at the time at Hodges Creek Marina.

Last year Senior Magistrate Valerie Stephens ruled that four men were guilty of drug-trafficking-related offences in connection with that bust, though she acquitted two others. Three of the men found guilty had been extradited to the territory from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and are currently serving their sentences at Her Majesty’s Prison at Balsam Ghut, as is a VIslander who was also found guilty.

Seizures

The amount of cocaine recovered by VI law enforcement authorities in VI waters has fluctuated in the past three years. About 60 kilograms were seized in 2009, compared to about 278 kilograms in 2010 and about 30 kilograms last year, Mr. Murray said, though he added that the statistics don’t tell the whole story.

“One year you might get X amount of drugs seized in one country and not so much in another, and it might be the other way around,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that things have changed. There’s just a slight shift in one country.”

Governor Boyd McCleary, whose responsibilities include the territory’s national security, said that in addition to anti-drug operations here, VI officials have also played a part behind the scenes in successful operations elsewhere.

“We are working with other countries and other law enforcement agencies in the region, and some of the information and intelligence gathered here leads to seizures in other jurisdictions,” Mr. McCleary said.

A regional response, he added, requires sharing intelligence and resources across jurisdictions. For example, the VI, Mr. McCleary said, works closely with the US Coast Guard to train officers to perform interdictions at sea. He added that last year marine police received two new “go fast” boats, enabling them to better apprehend smugglers.

“Certainly we regard [drug smuggling] as a serious threat to the BVI, and have allocated resources to the police and other law enforcement agencies to tackle that threat,” he said.

Limited resources

The US report, though, described the territory’s marine resources as “limited,” and said these constraints make it difficult to respond to airdrops.

“Local traffickers, who typically retrieve these shipments and transport them in boats to the British Virgin Islands, are often able to complete their activities before interdiction forces — which are limited in number — can pinpoint the airdrop location and respond,” the report stated.

Mr. James, the VI police superintendent, said that while the department now boasts “quite a bit of marine assets,” it currently lacks as many officers as it would like to man the boats, he said.

“There’s still an issue of resources, and our numbers are still below what we would like them to be, so that presents an issue for us,” he said.

Mr. McCleary said that while police “are certainly making a case” for resources to disrupt organised crime, tight government budgets make finding funds difficult.

“[Agencies] will always tell you that they need more resources. … You also have to take into account the fiscal situation of the territory,” the governor said.

The territory also currently lacks air assets to help spot smugglers in VI waters. The police plane, a 1976 Piper Navaho, has been inoperable for several years. The aircraft’s status is under review, Mr. McCleary said.

Other countries are feeling the pinch of fiscal austerity as well. The UK used to regularly deploy a warship to the Caribbean with a mission that included disaster response and counter-narcotics patrols. That warship’s duties were assumed by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ship beefed up with an armed naval detachment and a helicopter, he said. Mr. McCleary maintained that the change wouldn’t negatively impact the UK’s counter-drug mission in the region.

Local impact

Despite limited resources, though, the governor said the fight against cocaine smuggling is important in part because drugs are often a cause of other societal problems.

“It’s likely to lead to broader criminality in society: young people being led astray, getting dragged in to either taking drugs or being involved in moving drugs. So it’s not good for any society to be a root for international drug trafficking,” he said.

International trafficking is a particular concern, Mr. James said, because in many cases members of smuggling organisations are paid with drugs, which they then sell locally.

Drug consumption, he added, often leads users to steal, rob and burglarise to support their habit. Disputes between traffickers also drive the territory’s violent crimes, he said.

“We can attribute that the majority of our murders are connected to organised crime, drug trafficking,” he said.

Regional trends

The USVI, Puerto Rico and the DR are seeing similar trends, according to Mr. Benson, the DEA intelligence chief. Puerto Rico recorded more than 1,000 homicides in 2011; the USVI currently is experiencing a per capita homicide rate 10 times the national American average; and the DR has recently seen several execution-style murders, he said. He attributed the rise in violence to drug trafficking.

Criminals involved in the drug trade are also “more likely to carry firearms, more likely to want firearms,” Mr. Murray said, adding that the territory’s proximity to the USVI makes acquiring guns relatively easy.

Recently some VI law enforcement officers also have been accused in connection with the drug trade. Two customs officers — Roberto “Tico” Harrigan and Linda Todman Huggins — and one immigration officer, Walter Maduro, have been charged in recent months in connection with an alleged cocaine trafficking ring that led to the arrests of more than a dozen VI residents last year. Mr. Smith, the customs commissioner, said that in the wake of those allegations his department is increasing vigilance of its officers and is considering introducing “integrity training” to ensure that they “have pride in what they do and avoid any temptations on the job,” he said.

The Customs Management and Duties Act 2010 also gives the customs commissioner “more teeth” to conduct internal investigations and lay criminal charges against behaviours that may have warranted an administrative penalty or may have been treated as personnel matters in the past, Mr. Smith said.

“That legislation in itself serves as a major deterrent,” he said.

Progress

Mr. McCleary said some of the territory’s recent successes can be attributed to efforts to improve intelligence gathering, intelligence sharing and enhanced cooperation. The implementation of a witness protection programme has made it more likely that “people will stand up and be counted and give evidence against the bad guys,” he said.

Additionally, in the past several years the police’s Financial Investigations Unit has been strengthened, enabling prosecutors to go after ill-gotten assets in court, said Adrian Dale, a police sergeant with the unit.

“When you’ve got drug seizures, inevitably there’s cash being used as a result of a drugs transaction,” Mr. Dale said.

The unit seized more than $757,000 in cash in 2011, and additional cases are pending, according to the sergeant.

“We are getting things seized,” he said. “When you see these cases come to court in the next few years, there’s a significant amount of money that can actually be reused for the benefits of local people.”

US authorities, too, have found that going after traffickers’ cash is a successful way of deterring drug smuggling. Last February, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced that the Caribbean cell of the Colombian El Norte del Valle cartel had been dismantled. Mr. Mendez-Hurtado, one of the alleged leaders of the cell, was one of 23 people named in five US indictments who are accused of drug trafficking and money laundering since 2007.

Mr. James, the police superintendent, said that “hitting traffickers in their pockets” is one way to put them out of business.

“As we get more successful at that, as we seize more property, then I think that people will be able to see the end result of our work,” Mr. James said.

Last Updated on Friday, 17 February 2012 12:44
 

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