Caribbean re-emerges as a drug corridor

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Five Dominicans killed for knowing too much about a drug lord. Spiking murder rates in Puerto Rico. Shootings in the normally paradise-like islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Long before Kingston, Jamaica, erupted in violence last week, the Caribbean was already becoming an increasingly dangerous way station for drug traffickers.

With the United States and Mexico working to tighten their border, which is the preferred drug trafficking route, the Caribbean is “re-emerging as a corridor” for South American drugs to get to the U.S., said Dominican security expert Lilian Bobea.

“It was out the picture for a few years,” Bobea said. “Now, cartels are looking for more routes and that’s leading to a kind of revival of drug-related conflict in the Caribbean.”

The Obama administration has taken notice, pledging $45 million to combat drug trafficking under the recently launched Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. The initiative seeks to control "spillover" from the Mexican and Central American trafficking channels.

Last year, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Caribbean Julissa Reynoso told a House committee that drug “traffickers will continue to expand operations throughout the region by exploiting these vulnerable transit routes, undermining local governments.”

Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez confirmed Reynoso’s fears last month, saying the region was “overwhelmed. … In recent years, the region has been threatened by the increase of drug trafficking, violence and organized crime.”

That threat came into sharp relief last week when police tried to capture alleged drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke in his stronghold neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens in west Kingston, Jamaica’s capital.

Coke faces extradition to the U.S., where he would face drug trafficking and arms dealing charges. Jamaican media describe him as a politically connected “don,” whose generosity in Tivoli Gardens has made him something of a messiah for many residents.

When police came to arrest Coke on the weekend of May 22, armed gangs retaliated, attacking police and blocking streets. By week’s end, 74 were dead and 500 others had been arrested.

Coke, leader of the “Shower Posse,” which got its name from showering rivals with bullets during 1980s cocaine wars, was not captured. Jamaican media reported he escaped.

Whatever the outcome for Coke, the violence in Kingston illustrates the power drug traffickers can wield.

“The key thing [in the Jamaica situation] is the connection between the Shower Posse and political officials,” said Desmond Arias, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor who writes frequently on security in Jamaica. Coke, who describes himself as a businessman, received numerous government contracts. The Tivoli Gardens neighborhood he controls is represented in Parliament by Prime Minister Bruce Golding.

Golding refused to extradite Coke for about nine months before ordering his arrest last week amid mounting pressure. But he has denied any links to Coke and his gang.

Still, Coke’s strength in his community was on full display last week. And officials warn that an increase in drug shipments through the region could further strengthen drug lords and lead to more conflicts.

Throughout the region “those violent entities have become more and more embedded into society and the institutions,” Bobea said.

In the Dominican Republic, another alleged drug boss, Jose Figueroa Agosto, has been on the run for months. He’s wanted on drug trafficking charges. Since he went into hiding, five associates, who police believe knew something about Figueroa’s drug operations, have been killed. The most recent murder occurred in broad daylight in mid-May when the owner of a popular Santo Domingo cafe was killed in the business’s parking lot.

In Puerto Rico, officials believe a rise in drug-related crimes accounted for its high death toll in 2009, when 890 people were killed, the third-worst year on record.

Even in the tiny island of Nevis, police said that the drug trade accounts for 20 percent of crime.

Dominican President Fernandez has blamed the U.S. for not doing enough to cut consumption of illegal drugs and supplyies of arms.

In a December Congressional hearing, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) echoed that sentiment, saying 90 percent of illegal arms confiscated in Jamaica come from the U.S. “I have been increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of U.S. counternarcotics efforts in the Americas,” he said, according to a transcript. “We must increase efforts to reduce demand here.”

Washington’s main response is the recently launched Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. At talks Thursday, State Department officials said Washington knows it must also reduce domestic demand to limit the flow of illicit drugs to the U.S.

Cartels still transport about 75 percent of U.S.-bound drugs through Central America and Mexico. But officials say maritime routes may again become attractive.

Last month, for example, Colombian authorities arrested 20 members of a smuggling ring suspected of trafficking 30 tons of coke to the U.S. each month, mostly through high-speed boats and small submarines that traversed the Caribbean.

Only time will tell if the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative is successful.

Arias said he hopes it will be successful, but doubts it can address the core problems in countries like Jamaica. “The entire project devotes less than $4 million for the whole Caribbean to rule of law initiatives — most of the money appears to go to training and military aid,” he said. “The problem though isn’t training or a lack of resources, it is a lack of efficacy on the part of the Jamaican state in combating organized crime.”