Puerto Rico: Back Door for Drug Trafficking in US Officials in the US Territory See a Surge in Smuggling after Hurricane Georges

Article excerpt

Hundreds of small fishing boats trail wakes across the turquoise bay off this tropical port town, but scores of them carry a catch that's more than a little fishy.

In the employ of Colombian cocaine cartels, these boats are one of the latest drug-trafficking challenges to confront US law- enforcement officials - a challenge that has only intensified with the chaos wreaked last month by hurricane Georges.

"There was a snowstorm after the hurricane," says Michael Vigil, head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Puerto Rico, referring to the latest flurry of cocaine shipments through the island. "It gave them a window of opportunity, and they're taking advantage of it." The recent upsurge in Caribbean drug trafficking is a response, in part, to smugglers' search for points of entry other than the US- Mexico border. Moreover, say officials in this American commonwealth, Puerto Rico is not equipped to respond with a crackdown. "We are now in a vulnerable position because a lot of our assets have been transferred to the Southwest border to fight trafficking there," says Jim Weber, FBI special agent in charge in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. "Most of our Coast Guard cutters, naval cruisers, and airplanes went to other regions. We're limited to a few US Customs planes, and the machinery is not designed for this type of surveillance." Fajardo, cited as the entry point of 75 percent of all drugs in Puerto Rico by a 1997 Justice Department report, draws smugglers because it's home to the daily traffic of hundreds of small, wooden fishing boats, called yolas, and is the closest port to an arc of nearby, border-porous islands. It's also home to thousands of migrants from the Dominican Republic. US authorities say Dominican gangs ferry most of the cocaine and other illicit drugs across the 77-mile Mona Passage to Puerto Rico. The Colombian cartels use Dominican smugglers because they often charge 30 percent less than their Mexican counterparts do to fulfill the role of smuggler, according to DEA reports. In and around Puerto Rico, the DEA this year has confiscated more than 8,250 kilos of cocaine, 5,400 kilos of marijuana, and 27 kilos of heroin, the DEA's Mr. Vigil says. Officials in Washington say that represents an increase in seizures over 1997. And the street price of cocaine in the US has plummeted from $28,000 per kilo in March 1997 to about $14,500 in October, indicating a sharp increase in supply. Officials set a record in the Caribbean last year, when they found 6,700 pounds of cocaine in a tractor-trailer. …