Puerto Rico – the economically distressed US territory that many Americans know mainly as a vacation resort – turns out to be a way station for South American cocaine bound for the hungry US market.
It often works like this: speedboats sail up from Venezuela laden with coke, hang out off the coast of Puerto Rico by day, and then make for the coast of the US territory by night.
Once there, getting cocaine into the United States is in theory easier: shipments can be mailed or sent to airports or seaports without having to clear customs, authorities here say.
Seizures of cocaine, the most profitable drug for traffickers, have shot up here on the island: 5,300 kilos so far this year, compared to just under 4,000 in 2014 and 2,800 in 2013, according to the Puerto Rico Police, which is now part of a special drug interdiction force along with other American agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI and the Coast Guard.
“Puerto Rico is used as a bridge to the United States. Eighty-five per cent of the drugs that pass through Puerto Rico are for the United States,” said Police Chief Jose Caldero.
As recently as Wednesday, police confiscated 190 kilos of cocaine from a boat and arrested three Dominicans.
Six weeks ago police scored a much bigger hit: 2,100 kilos seized on a boat trying to reach the north coast of the island.
The rise in drug shipments through the US part of the Caribbean, mainly via Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, has set off alarms in the White House. In January it announced a new strategy to combat the trend.
Most drugs destined for the United States follow a route that hugs the coasts of Central America or crosses the US border with Mexico. But these are being moreclosely monitored, so traffickers have been forced to seek out new routes, US officials say.
Most cocaine arrives from Venezuela, a neighbour of major producer Colombia. Before, vessels carrying the drug would stop over in the Dominican Republic, but police are now detecting more and more direct trips from the northern tip of South America right to Puerto Rico.
And there is a pattern to the trafficking.
“They come in a speedboat with three engines. By day, they cover it up with a black tarp. They go nice and slow, and fish. At night is when they hit the accelerator,” said Caldero.
The authorities end up playing cat and mouse, adapting their tactics as the traffickers tweak theirs.
“This is a strategy. We make our plans, but they also make theirs,” he said.
And the small amount of cocaine that remains on the island is also a growing problem.
Formerly the service of mooring boats carrying cocaine and handling it on the island was paid for in cash. Now, however, it is paid for in cocaine itself.
“And it has to be sold,” said Gary Gutierrez, a criminal justice professor.
Sixty-five per cent of the killings committed in Puerto Rico are directly related to drugs, said Caldero.
Those killings peaked in 2011 at 1,135. In 2014 they had fallen to 681, mainly because of tougher law enforcement, he added.
Although the island has huge financial problems – a debt of US$72 billion after eight years of economic recession — the police budget has remained stable at more than US$750 million, the police chief said.
But, at the same time, that economic crisis makes drug trafficking more appealing to people who are enduring hard times, said Gutierrez. He is in favour of decriminalising drugs as a way to end drug-related violence.
“In those communities, unfortunately drug trafficking becomes a solution to the economic problem,” he said.