By David Jessop
Narcotics trafficking through the Caribbean, and the associated criminality that accompanies it may be about to get worse. As those who produce and traffic narcotics into North America and Europe come under increasing pressure in Central America and Mexico there is a serious danger that their activities will be displaced into the Caribbean.
In one of a number of recent reports on the issue the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warned that there is a growing risk that the Caribbean could once again become the primary conduit for narcotics trafficking into the US.
The document, which mainly concentrates on Central America, also suggests that although Jamaica has declined as a location for cocaine shipments to Europe, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Dutch and French Caribbean plus Suriname, Guyana and French Guyana have become important conduits using, in some cases routes through West Africa. It observes too that as the interdiction success rate increases in Central America and Mexico, producers and traffickers have become extremely adept at rapidly re-routing shipments and at moving to other locations; a development often accompanied by significant levels of violence as contesting groups vie for control.
In this context one particularly alarming development has been the revelation that the Mexico based Sinaloa Federation is now actively working in the Dominican Republic to establish a local presence and is developing Caribbean trafficking routes to Europe. According to US and Dominican Republic officials, the group’s members, who have been trying to establish new routes through Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, have been looking at Hispaniola as a location to obtain precursor chemicals for the manufacture of synthetic drugs such as crystal meth and amphetamines, and have been seeking logistical support for drug flights from Venezuela. There has also been an associated upsurge in homicide and some evidence that Chinese organised crime syndicates may be seeking to work with Latin American groups there or elsewhere in the region.
Although the group’s footprint is presently small, experts suggest that this indicates that counter-narcotics programmes in Central America and Mexico may once again turn the Caribbean into an alternative corridor to those presently in use across and offshore of Central America. They are also concerned that the Sinaloa Federation would bring a dangerous and new element into both sides of Hispaniola in the form of extreme violence and an even greater ability to corrupt officials than the Venezuelan and Colombian gangs operating there at present. They believe that the Sinaloa Federation’s ultimate aim is to create new routes throughout the Caribbean into Puerto Rico for shipments to the US and through other locations to Europe.
For its part the Dominican Republic Government acknowledges the threat and is working closely with international agencies to address the problem.
At meetings in July in Santo Domingo between the US Secretary for Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano and the former Dominican President, Leonel Fernandez, they agreed to increase information sharing capabilities, strengthen aviation security and permit a wide range of other activities. In August the Dominican Government signed an agreement with Mexico that will help fight organized crime and terrorism and allow for information exchange in relation to corruption, people and narcotics trafficking and money laundering. It is also working closely with partner Governments in Europe on similar issues.
Haiti, however, remains particularly susceptible. The 2010 earthquake so badly damaged the country’s infrastructure that it declined as a location for transhipment, according to the wide ranging recent US Senate report ‘Preventing a Security Crisis in the Caribbean’. Now, however, Senators suggest, drug traffickers may utilize the Republic’s newly rebuilt roads and points of entry to their own advantage. Haiti is also mentioned as one of three countries (including the Dominican Republic and Suriname) that do not have an agreement to extradite their own nationals to the United States.
So concerned has the Puerto Rican Government become by all of this that, giving evidence to the US Congressional sub-committee that produced the report, the Puerto Rican Governor, Luis Fortuno, called on US President Obama to create a Caribbean Border Initiative that encompassed the US territories as well as other regional nations. Such a strategy, he told the Senate committee in July, could improve the co-ordination of federal resources in the Caribbean and enable Puerto Rico to combat the rising levels of drug related violence in a country where 80 per cent of murders are drug related.
Tackling the multifaceted threat posed by narcotics trafficking and its allied activities is complicated. It needs a level of resource that no single Caribbean government has, and requires unusual levels of co-ordination and technology, given the geographically dispersed location of Caribbean states.
The US, Canada, the European Commission and individual EU governments including the UK, the Netherlands and France, are working with the region on a range of initiatives. These include: better co-ordination between command, communications and intelligence centres; better cooperation with the US territories; the use of advanced technology including the testing of drones; a new approach to naval coordination; better interagency co-operation; and improvements to the administration of justice and to prisons policy.
Counter narcotics activity is of course replete with paradoxes. Making the region more secure involves challenges to civil liberties and to traditional concepts of sovereignty. It almost certainly involves political trade-offs on unrelated issues and requires Governments to address the fact that there is an enemy within who may be ministers, officials or businesspeople in the pay of organised crime. There is also the consequence that displacement of trafficking or production from one area to another brings with it greater violence and crime and a need for developed nations to address their relative inaction when it come to the reduction of consumption.
Unfortunately, the Caribbean Basin is one of the global epicentres of production and distribution. Narcotics trafficking is a huge global business valued at around US$322 billion per annum now involving the employment of sophisticated technologies and skills. It has the capacity to dwarf whole economies and corrupt governments and legitimate business. It is self-regulated through extreme violence, and an approach when required, that corrupts and threatens.
What recent reports, statements and briefings suggest, when taken together, is that an economically weak region, now largely out of development assistance, may come to see a much darker and rising tide of narcotics-related violence and crime sweep across the region.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org