As violent Puerto Rican drug trade seeps into mainland US, Washington must act
Drug trafficking is at the root of most of the 1,136 homicides perpetrated in Puerto Rico in 2011, the highest number ever recorded, exceeding even Mexico's murder rate. The Puerto Rican government cannot manage this crisis alone. Washington must intervene.
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San Juan is the fifth busiest port on the eastern seaboard, with traffic exceeding well over 1 million containers annually. It is a major transshipment point for cocaine and heroin, and only a minute fraction of the cargo is inspected. In 2010, less than 2 percent of the 14,321 containers inspected in Puerto Rico were checked for illegal drugs.Skip to next paragraph
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While cocaine and heroin traffic runs south to north, illegal profits travel in reverse. Drug profits primarily originating in Miami and New York are funneled through money laundering cells in Puerto Rico to Columbian narco-traffickers, much of it by way of the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico’s cash-based economy – amounting to roughly $18 billion in cash retail sales in 2011 – facilitates laundering illegal profits.
As profits increase so do gang rivalries, which devolve into warfare whenever drug rings are decapitated. Last year’s conviction of Angelo Millones, a Puerto Rican trafficker with illicit earnings estimated at $100 million, sparked turf wars on the Island. This type of gang-on-gang violence has taken a toll on innocent bystanders, including children.
The recession also appears to have fueled drug-related violence, as figures for unemployment and criminal activity escalated in tandem. From March 2006 to 2011, unemployment rose from 9.2 to 16.9 percent. During this period homicides increased by roughly 52 percent.
Puerto Rico’s police, the second largest US force with approximately 17,000 officers, are overwhelmed and dispirited. Their integrity has been questioned by a Justice Department report citing constitutional violations, corruption, and statistical manipulations. In 2010, 89 local law enforcement officers were indicted and arrested on charges of trafficking and firearms crimes.
As the magnitude of the crisis grows, so does the necessity for Washington’s help.
The Puerto Rican representative in Congress is calling for a Caribbean Border Initiative akin to the Southwest Border Initiative which the Obama administration expanded in 2009. This multi-agency initiative (aimed at combating Mexican drug trafficking along the US border) has deployed manpower, technology, and resources to stem drug violence and flow. It includes $600 million in supplemental funds. An additional $1.6 billion have been appropriated for the Merida Initiative, a US-Mexico partnership to combat drug production and traffic in the region.
By comparison, Puerto Rico typically receives less than $50 million annually in direct federal funding for drug abuse prevention, investigations, prosecution, and interdiction. Federal law enforcement agencies operating in Puerto Rico are understaffed.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Black Caucus, and Asian Pacific Caucus have asked President Obama to support the Caribbean Border Initiative and to confront what the Attorney General Eric Holder has called a national security issue.
OPINION: The war on drugs needs a timeout
Puerto Rico is in the frontline of the American war on drugs and it should be a priority in the national drug control policy. The island has an American coastline and an American citizenry that deserves the full protection of the federal government.
Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is project director of Media Diversity Initiatives at the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.