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Jul 23, 2012 | 10:31 GMT

4 mins read

U.S. Counternarcotics Efforts in the Caribbean

U.S. Counternarcotics Efforts in the Caribbean

A Predator unmanned aerial vehicle from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security officially began counternarcotics operations July 15 from the Dominican Republic's San Isidro Air Base in Santo Domingo. The unmanned aerial vehicle will monitor maritime routes and territory in the Mona Passage, the body of water between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The United States hopes that increased cooperation with the Dominican National Directorate of Drug Control, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, will stem the flow of maritime narcotics trafficking through the Dominican Republic.

Over the past three years, the Dominican Republic has emerged as a principal transshipment point for illegal drugs in the Caribbean Sea. South American cocaine arrives in the Dominican Republic by air or sea, and then smugglers ship it from there to Central America, Europe and the United States. The country's geographic importance to the international drug trade makes counternarcotics action a priority for U.S. law enforcement. By increasing patrols in the Caribbean, U.S. authorities could put pressure on drug traffickers who use the Dominican Republic as an alternate route to evade law enforcement operations in Central and South America.

The National Directorate of Drug Control confirmed that during its testing phase, the Predator participated in the June 23 seizure of nearly 1.5 metric tons of cocaine from a go-fast vessel 177 kilometers (110 miles) south of the municipality of Bani. It was also used in a July 3 maritime raid near San Pedro de Macoris in which authorities seized 767 kilograms (1,691 pounds) of cocaine. National Directorate of Drug Control Director Rolando Rosado Mateo suggested that unmanned aerial vehicle flights could extend to Haiti if an agreement is signed with its government. Together these efforts would increase surveillance time over many of the sea routes around Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Major Drug Seizures in the Dominican Republic map

Major Drug Seizures in the Dominican Republic map

Most of the cocaine intercepted by U.S. and local authorities in the Dominican Republic arrives by maritime shipping routes. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration already cooperates with Dominican police and military forces in raids against ships smuggling cocaine to the island's southern coast. These joint operations have led to the seizure of 6.7 metric tons of cocaine in the country in 2011, compared to 4.85 metric tons the previous year.

The increased U.S. anti-drug presence in the Caribbean reflects the importance of the Dominican Republic as a trafficking hub. Several arrests in 2011 and 2012 showed that Mexican nationals allegedly linked to the Sinaloa Federation were directly participating in drug trafficking through the Dominican Republic. One of the Mexicans — arrested March 19 in Santo Domingo — was reportedly the personal pilot of Sinaloa Federation leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera. These arrests underscore cartels' reliance on the Dominican Republic for cocaine trafficking to Europe, Central America and the United States (particularly the port of Miami). Cocaine hidden in shipping containers or bulk cargo shipments at Dominican ports enters the Europe through Spain and Portugal or goes to the United States through Miami and Puerto Rico. Also, drug-laden aircraft flying from Venezuela refuel in the Dominican Republic before going on to unload cocaine shipments in the poorly monitored eastern regions of Honduras and Nicaragua.

U.S. law enforcement also plays an important role, since corruption within the Dominican Republic's political leadership and security forces hampers its efforts against drug trafficking. Oscar Ezequiel Rodriguez Cruz, a Dominican drug trafficking suspect extradited to the United States in 2012, led a political movement affiliated with the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party. Local news sources claimed that Rodriguez actively participated in national political races and donated funds to the 2004 presidential bid of current President Leonel Fernandez and to former president Hipolito Mejia. Media reports alleged that corrupt Dominican military officials protected Rodriguez from prosecution inside the country.

Regional Implications of Caribbean Drug Smuggling

The deployment of an unmanned aerial vehicle to Santo Domingo demonstrates the expansion of U.S. efforts to restrict smuggling corridors in Central America and the Caribbean. U.S. law enforcement authorities began pressuring drug traffickers earlier this year in Honduras through Operation Anvil, which focused on keeping cocaine-carrying aircraft out of the country. This effort seems aimed at slowing the flow of cocaine through Central America, and the focus on the Dominican Republic appears to be an attempt to deny traffickers alternate Caribbean routes.

The Caribbean's renewed importance reflects Mexico's expanded role in the drug trade in the past decade. As U.S. surveillance and interdiction of Colombian traffickers using the Caribbean in the 1990s increased, traffickers increasingly chose routes through Mexico. With this concentration of drug trafficking revenue, Mexican organizations' regional influence increased but so did violence and competition over Mexican routes. The competition and violence in Mexico caused traffickers to look for new routes to move their product — including air and maritime routes through the Dominican Republic.

Drug trafficking organizations appear to be shifting to Caribbean routes, and the United States has accordingly moved its counternarcotics focus to shutting down drug traffic in the Caribbean Basin and, by extension, Mexico. Cooperation and assistance from the United States appear to have augmented Dominican forces' capabilities, since cocaine seizures have steadily risen since 2002, when authorities seized slightly more than one metric ton over the course of the year. Caribbean nations depend heavily on the funding and resources provided by the United States, and the region's location, limited law enforcement and corruption have kept it a viable shipping point for cocaine despite U.S.-backed interdiction efforts. However, the United States appears able to conduct these interdiction operations in the Caribbean more freely than in Mexico, where the government is more concerned with the presence of foreign military or police. Therefore, U.S. law enforcement agencies will continue to focus on this Caribbean smuggling route.

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