Homeland security lawmakers want more U.S. attention brought to security vulnerabilities in the Caribbean.
At a homeland security subcommittee hearing Thursday, lawmakers called on Attorney General Eric Holder to create a counternarcotics strategy for the Caribbean, which was described as an “open road for drug traffickers and terrorists.”
“Without a comprehensive strategy to counter the cartels increasing presence in the Caribbean,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, “the region could continue to spiral out of control.”
McCaul noted that the same drug smuggling routes made famous by the 1980s television show "Miami Vice" are back in style among traffickers. In fiscal year 2011, authorities seized 165,000 metric tons of illegal drugs in the Caribbean, Bahamas, and the Gulf of Mexico, an increase of 36 percent over four years. Eighty percent of cocaine moved through Puerto Rico is destined for U.S. cities on the East Coast, the chairman said.
As the drugs move through these areas, crime and instability follow.
“On average one person is murdered on the island every 7.5 hours, and at least half of those murders involve drug trafficking organizations,” McCaul said. ”Last year there were 30 homicides for every 100,000 Puerto Ricans. This rate is far higher than any state in the mainland.”
McCaul also raised the specter of more dangerous materials traveling on these routes to the United States. “The Caribbean region is also susceptible to smuggling nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological materials, and it could easily be used as staging areas for violence against the United States.”
Drug cartels and traffickers use many means of conveyances to smuggle drugs through the Caribbean and into the U.S., including drug subs, go-fast boats, small airplanes , and even commercial airliners. Drug subs are a particular worry for those Department of Homeland Security components with responsiblities in the Caribbean.
“This makes them a dangerous drug conveyance that could potentially be adapted for transporting other more serious security threats to the United States,” according to testimony submitted jointly by the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Despite these problems, resources are scarce for counternarcotics activity in the Caribbean, particularly around unincorporated U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Although the Coast Guard interdicted over 1,700 pounds of cocaine in Puerto Rico from January 2009 and August 2011 and none in Miami during that same timeframe, the Coast Guard Office in San Juan, has to rely on assets from Miami to reinforce their fleet,” Rep. William Keating (D-MA) said .
The lack of attention on Puerto Rico is particularly questionable, according to Keating, the subcommittee’s ranking member, because Puerto Rico’s population is 3.6 million more than Miami’s.
To make matter worse, observed Keating, the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) has been accused of “widespread corruption and abuse.’ In a September 2011 findings letter, the Department of Justice called it “an agency in profound disrepair.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) followed this up on Tuesday with a report harshly critical of the PRPD . “These abuses do not represent isolated incidents or aberrant behavior by a few rogue officers,” the report said. “Such police brutality is pervasive and systemic, island-wide and ongoing. The PRPD is steeped in a culture of unrestrained abuse and near-total impunity.”
“[T]he homeland security resources, equipment and personnel that are deployed to those areas are not on par with other parts of the United States with less challenging circumstances,” said Keating. “This is an issue that requires a comprehensive strategy.”
A few weeks ago, Holder agreed, telling the House Judiciary Committee that “When one looks at the Caribbean, Puerto Rico in particular, I think we need to have a strategy,” he said. Last December, Holder also told the same committee that drug trafficking in Puerto Rico and the broader Caribbean “is a national security issue that we must face.”
♦ Photo by Marion Doss/Flickr