CENTRAL AMERICA NEWS (InsightCrime) The White House’s new strategy to confront drug trafficking in US Caribbean territory, the first federal plan of its kind, comes amid concerns over increased drug trafficking and gang violence in the region.
The new strategy lays out six objectives for combatting drug trafficking and transnational organized crime in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, a mix of “hard” and “soft” approaches that range from reducing youth drug use to running more effective interdiction operations.
The document makes the case for why the US Caribbean merits the same kind of counternarcotics plan typically reserved for the southwest. The year 2013 saw the highest documented flow of cocaine through the Caribbean since 2003, with 91 metric tons seized. There has also been an increase in other types of drugs smuggled through Puerto Rico, as evidenced by the island’s first ever dismantling of a methamphetamine trafficking organization in 2013.
The rise in drug trafficking has been accompanied by a rise in financial crime: about a third of all earnings in Puerto Rico’s underground economy — an estimated $5 billion — may be related to drug trafficking, the document states.
And even as violence levels have dropped in Puerto Rico — from a record 1,164 murders in 2011, to just 681 in 2014 — the document notes that there is a “strong nexus between drug trafficking and violent crimes,” and that most drug-related crimes in Puerto Rico have to do with trafficking rather than consuming drugs.
The document credits several initiatives — including one that targets illegal firearms, and another involving special groups of vetted local prosecutors and law enforcement agents known as “strike forces” — with having lowered Puerto Rico’s murder rate.
One of the more intriguing details of the strategy is that one federal agency, the US Customs and Border Protection, plans to introduce a smartphone app that would allow its agents to more quickly access relevant databases. Other types of technology — including a mobile app used to send anonymous tip-offs to police — have been credited with bringing about improvements in Puerto Rico’s crime levels. There is already a glut of apps developed by civilians and non-governmental organizations meant to address citizen security in Latin America, and now it appears that at least one US federal agency is developing one meant for exclusive use by officials.
In general, the new Caribbean counternarcotics strategy stays away from making the delivery of security equipment a central focus of the plan, as once characterized the US Merida Initiative for Mexico. Instead, it fits in with the broader shift seen under the Obama government, toward a more humanistic counternarcotics policy that emphasizes prevention and treatment at home, along with rhetoric that emphasizes a more “flexible” approach overseas.
Arguably one of the biggest challenges for local authorities in Puerto Rico will be breaking the hold that street gangs have over public housing projects. Puerto Rico’s Housing Security Office has said that 300 of the island’s 333 public housing projects are controlled by drug trafficking organizations, according to the document released by the White House. Some of these gangs have reportedly brokered alliances with local political organizations, a phenomenon seen elsewhere in the Caribbean, most prominently in Jamaica.
The successful implementation of the US strategy in Puerto Rico could yet make the island a less attractive place for transnational drug trafficking groups. But there are plenty of other sites in the Caribbean where these groups could fix their attention, including the Dominican Republic, which is currently struggling to rein in drug-related corruption.