Illegal Drugs in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico: What Is Being Done To Eradicate the Flow?

 Most Popular Drug Shipment Routes Through the Caribbean 

US Drug Enforcement Administration

Commander Heather Kelly, PhD, Chief of Response Operations for the US Coast Guard, San Juan Sector, described the Coast Guard’s strategies and the critical international partnerships that have been formed to eradicate the flow of drugs in the Caribbean. Because Puerto Rico is within the US customs barriers, it offers more opportunities for inspections and interdiction than other islands along the drug-smuggling routes, Commander Kelly noted.

Sector San Juan is responsible for all Coast Guard missions in the Eastern Caribbean area and serves as the US first line of defense in the Caribbean, Commander Kelly told the Forum. As Chief of Response Operations, Commander Kelly oversees the Department’s command and control activities associated with incident response and/or security enforcement. Typical patrols in Puerto Rico’s area of operations involve search and rescue, alien migrant interdiction operations, fisheries law enforcement, counter narcotics operations, and enforcement of other laws and treaties.

Commander Kelly reported that one of the San Juan Section vessels, the Cutter Drummond, has won commendations for safely interdicting over 20,502 Haitian migrants at sea and for stemming the illegal flow of Cuban migrants into the Florida Straits. Since April 2012, another vessel, the Cutter Matinicus, has been involved in three drug interdictions resulting in $8.5 million of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana seizures. The Matinicus also interdicted and repatriated over 125 migrants seeking to enter the US illegally in small, un-seaworthy wooden boats called yolas.

Illegal Immigration

“Anyone can put anything on any vessel,” Commander Kelly reminded the Forum. Fishing vessels and small “go-fast” boats are used for drug smuggling, while recreational boats and wooden boats called yolas are often used to smuggle people.

As the primary maritime law-enforcement agency, the Coast Guard is tasked with enforcing immigration law at sea, Commander Kelly said. The Coast Guard conducts patrols and coordinates with other federal agencies and foreign countries to interdict undocumented migrants at sea, denying them entry via maritime routes to the US, its territories, and its possessions. Thousands of people try to enter the US illegally every year using maritime routes. Interdicting migrants at sea means they can be quickly returned to their countries of origin without the costly processes required if they successfully enter the US. There were 12,000 migrants interdicted in 2004, but fewer than 4,000 in 2015, Commander Kelly reported. The mechanisms developed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants were effective and, therefore, have also been applied to drug trafficking.

Drug Trafficking

Cocaine, heroin, and marijuana are transported to the US using a variety of vessels, including container ships, cruise ships, commercial fishing vessels, recreation craft, and go-fast boats. The drugs are typically concealed in hidden compartments, commingled with legitimate goods, or couriered by passenger or crew members on maritime vessels. Traffickers also have increasingly used self-propelled semisubmersibles (SPSSs) to transport multi-ton quantities of cocaine. These vessels typically protrude only a few inches above the surface of the water, making them quite difficult to detect visually.

Drug trafficking is always associated with instability and violence, Commander Kelly said. The major threat vector is from Columbia and Venezuela to the Dominican Republic and then to Puerto Rico. The price of cocaine goes up as the drug goes north, because it is harder to get there past all the barriers, the Commander reported, “This is a problem for ALL the nations.”

Drug trafficking is an international problem, therefore, critical bilateral partnerships have been developed with other Caribbean countries to share information and resources. The goal is to stop the drug trade as close to the source as possible.

Because drug trafficking is an international problem, critical bilateral partnerships have been developed with other Caribbean countries to share information and resources. The Coast Guard maintains 45 maritime bilateral law enforcement agreements with partner nations, which facilitate coordination of operations, and the forward deployment of boats, cutters, aircraft, and personnel to deter and counter threats as close to their origin as possible.

Territorial waters extend 12 miles offshore, but the bilateral agreements allow Coast Guard ships to ask and receive permission to board suspected vessels beyond the 12-mile limit. The goal is to stop the drug trade as early as possible. These agreements also enable the Coast Guard to assist partner nations in asserting control within their waters, and maintaining regional maritime domain awareness.

In Puerto Rico, the Coast Guard is part of a broad federal effort to strengthen current joint operations through a Regional Coordination Mechanism (ReCOM), including the Department of Justice, Transportation Security Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE). Commander Kelly reported on a joint operation conducted by this consortium to detain a delivery vessel and coastal freighter, the M/V Atlantic VII, about eight miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. The freighter was the “Mother Ship” and was connected to a major drug trafficking organization. It launched a small boat carrying 989 kilograms (kg) of cocaine with an estimated street value of US $29 million. Both vessels were seized and impounded in the operation.

As a result of such joint efforts, 37,000 kg of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana were seized in FY2013, 29,000 kg in FY2014, and 28,000 kg in FY2015.


Sen. Eduardo Bhatia (PR): What is the street value of a kilogram of cocaine?

Commander Kelly: The value goes up as you go north. The wholesale value is $27,000 to $33,000 per kilogram. The street value multiplies this x 3. In New York, a kilogram of cocaine is worth $75,000.

Sen. Kevin de León (CA): How do you get the information that gives you probable cause to stop and board a vessel?

Commander Kelly: There are specific, indicative behavioral activities we watch for. Outside US waters, we can always approach and talk with the crew. We make cautious queries, while we look for signs of suspicious behavior. There is a set protocol and questionnaire that we follow. Once they are inside US waters, we have the authority to stop them.

Sen. Danny Martiny (AR): Do you need probable cause before you board a vessel?

Commander Kelly: If our questioning supports suspicion and we have reasonable cause, we consult with our lawyers while at sea to get permission to board.

Speaker Biography

Commander Heather Kelly, PhD

Commander Heather Kelly is currently assigned as the Chief of Response Operations at Coast Guard Sector San Juan, where she is responsible for all hazards response including surface asset management, search and rescue, counter-drug and migrant interdiction, and pollution response. Commander Kelly is a 1999 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and holds an MS and PhD. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Maryland, in College Park.

Other Winter 2016 Forum Highlights articles:

Commander Heather Kelly, PhD

Chief of the Response Operations

US Coast Guard

San Juan Sector

Thousands of people try to enter the US illegally every year using maritime routes.

Drug trafficking is an international problem, therefore, critical bilateral partnerships have been developed with other Caribbean countries to share information and resources. The goal is to stop the drug trade as close to the source as possible.

Sen. Kevin de León

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia

Heather Kelly, PhD

Senate Presidents’ Forum

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