Drug wars in Mexico, Colombia push drug trade to Dominican Republic

As authorities in Mexico and Columbia crack down on the drug trades in their countries and the US-Mexico border becomes harder to sneak across, drug rings are moving their operations into the Caribbean.

Bayahibe Beach in La Romana beckons tourists in the Dominican Republic.
Erika Santelices/Newscom
Dominican drug-squad officers guarded cocaine seized in Santo Domingo in May.

This coastal province lures hundreds of tourists every day. If watchful, they might look up from the soft sand and swimming pool-like Caribbean water to see low-flying airplanes dropping bundles of South American-grown cocaine in the sugar fields just miles inland.

The Dominican Republic's 1,100-mile coastline has become the center of the Caribbean's drug-trafficking business and a turnstile for cocaine shipments reaching as far north as Massachusetts. Last year alone, 123 small planes buzzed over the country's rolling farmland, dropping drug bundles. In 2008, authorities registered 200 illicit flights.

Approximately 10 percent of the US cocaine market, and 40 percent of the European market, flows through the Caribbean. The sugar cane fields around La Romana, a bustling city of 250,000 people, have become a favorite drop-off point.

"We're an important location for the drug traffickers because we essentially border the United States," says Col. Ramon Rodriguez of the Dominican Drug Control Agency. "They'll use whatever methods necessary to get the drugs here. If you stop the flights, they'll use boats or cross ... from Haiti."

"The Dominican Republic is really the center. It's the main transit point," agrees Kevin Brown of the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Drugs are then loaded on boats and sent to Puerto Rico or directly to the US, according to authorities.

It may sound like a plot from "Miami Vice." But it's a real and worsening scenario fueled by crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia, a tightening of the southwestern US border, and changes in cocaine consumption around the world.

To combat it, the Obama administration in May launched the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative with $45 million for 2010. Born amid discussions between Caribbean leaders in 2007, it is seen as an extension to US initiatives in Latin America to seize and eradicate drugs.

Those past US efforts seem to be paying off. According to the United Nations' 2010 World Drug Report, cocaine seizures more than doubled worldwide from 2000 to 2008, when 711 metric tons of cocaine were captured – an estimated 42 percent of the overall supply. (A decade ago, the UN report states, only about 24 percent of the global supply was interdicted.)

The thing about the $88 billion industry is that it's like playing whack-a-mole: Squeeze cartels in Mexico, and they pop up in the Caribbean. Squash shipments from Colombia, and they shift to Venezuela. In that analogy, the Caribbean's misfortune is that it's stuck in the middle.

"As you are successful in [Mexico and Central America], you see drug trafficking pushed toward the Caribbean," Makila James, director of the US State Department's Office of Caribbean Affairs, tells the Monitor. "Our partners in the region say crime is increasing at a rapid rate, and they're deeply concerned."

Rep. Connie Mack IV (R) of Florida, ranking Republican on the House Western Hemi­sphere Subcommittee, calls it a "balloonlike effect." As Colombia cracked down on its drug trade, illicit shipments through Venezuela grew fourfold from 2004 to 2007, according to the US Government Accountability Office. Likewise, now that President Obama has signed a $600 million security bill for increased surveillance of America's borders, "traffic through the Caribbean is expected to increase even further," says Colin Frederick of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

This has a direct effect on crime. From 2001 to 2009, the Dominican Republic's homicide rate nearly doubled to 23 murders per 100,000 residents. President Leonel Fernandez said in May that he is "overwhelmed" by the rise in drug-trafficking violence and organized crime. In Puerto Rico, murder rates are spiking. In Tobago, gangs are growing. In tiny Antigua, police are making the biggest drug busts in the country's history.

"It's not just the violence associated with the drugs passing through here. It gets down to the street level, into the communities," says Guillermo Somoza Colombani, Puerto Rico's attorney general. Such was obvious in May, when 70 people died as Jamaican police sought to capture drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke in Kingston.

The islands have dealt with this before. Notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar's cocaine empire ran through the Caribbean in the 1980s, and Mexican cartels have also utilized the region. But successful efforts in the 1990s to target the source of drugs, not transit points, saw even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime close its Caribbean office.

The White House is reengaging the region and conceding that US consumption is a major cause. "Demand in the large market in the [US] drives the drug trade," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in March after meeting with Latin American presidents in Guatemala.

The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative now aims to help 15 nations take down criminal groups. Critics say it lacks the crucial partners of Cuba and Europe, whose demand fuels the cocaine trade. The number of cocaine users in Europe doubled to 4.1 million over the past decade, says the UN World Drug Report, making the $34 billion European market nearly as valuable as the $37 billion North American market.

The State Department is in talks with Canada and European allies to join the initiative. "You can only do so much if you don't have patrol boats, night vision, and the necessary equipment," says Ms. James.

Such assets could prove crucial to the Dominican Drug Control Agency. Recent raids included capturing the alleged kingpin of operations in La Ro­mana, but the agency finds itself outmatched. "It's not just the shipments," says Rodriguez. "We also have dealers and people on the streets. We now have kids that are controlling distribution points."

An October sweep netted one alleged drug dealer who was 14 years old. "It's not uncommon," Rodriguez says.

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