By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Herald Staff Writer
FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- At first glance, little about this beach district
its role as the biggest gateway for one of the main routes for smuggling cocaine into
the United States.
But U.S. drug enforcement officials say the low-slung fishing boats manufactured
here are ideal for ducking under radar and outrunning bigger Coast Guard and
Customs vessels through miles of coastal waters only four to five feet deep.
And the predominance in Fajardo of migrants from the Dominican Republic,
officials add, reflects the fact that Dominican-dominated gangs control almost 90
percent of the cocaine smuggled from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland.
``Puerto Rico is now a transshipment point for a significant part of the
cocaine reaching U.S. markets, said Michael S. Vigil, head of the Drug
Enforcement Administration office in Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth. ``And
Dominican gangs control much of the traffic.''
Authorities intercepted four shipments of 2,500 pounds or more each in
eight months. A single-seizure record for the Caribbean was set in September
1997, when officials found 6,700 pounds in a trailer-truck.
Cocaine seizures in and around Puerto Rico totaled 14 metric tons in the
recent 12 months measured, compared with nine metric tons in the same period
one year earlier, said James McDonough, director of strategy in U.S. drug czar
Barry McCaffrey's Washington office.
And it's not just cocaine. Increasingly, traffickers are smuggling high-grade
Colombian heroin through Puerto Rico to the U.S. Eastern seaboard, mostly to the
New York-New Jersey area, but also to Florida.
Heroin smuggling aboard direct commercial flights from Puerto Rico recently
helped give Orlando the second-highest number of heroin overdose deaths in
Florida, behind Miami, DEA officials say.
High crime rate
Closer to home, drug trafficking has fueled Puerto Rico's high crime rate
murder rate has ranked at or near the top of the U.S. charts for several years --
and growing police corruption.
Eight police officers were arrested last month on charges of using their
launch to shuttle cocaine from the small island of Vieques, seven miles off the
coast, to the Fajardo area on Puerto Rico's northeastern corner.
Puerto Rico has long been an attractive spot for Colombian traffickers:
It is the
U.S. territory closest to Colombia, and its people speak Spanish. It has 300 miles
of coastline and no U.S. Customs checks on shipments to the mainland.
Trafficking here soared as U.S. officials squeezed routes across the U.S.-Mexico
border, which accounted for 75 percent of the cocaine reaching U.S. markets in
1994 and now account for about 50 percent.
Colombian wholesalers are now shipping much of their product through the
Caribbean, DEA officials say, island-hopping their way north aboard everything
from coastal freighters to speedboats and planes.
Speedboats can make the dash from Colombia to Puerto Rico in less than
while freighters and planes rendezvous in the northwestern Caribbean with smaller
boats that shuttle the loads to ``cooling off hideouts in places like Haiti and the
A few of those shipments are later smuggled directly to the United States.
most are smuggled into Puerto Rico, put aboard cargo containers and shipped by
sea to the mainland, DEA officials say.
In most cases, the final smuggling run into Puerto Rico involves small,
shallow-draft boats that dash into Fajardo across the huge expanses of sandy
shoals off this coast.
``Approximately 75 percent of all drugs entering Puerto Rico arrive by
Fajardo, said a classified report by the Justice Department's National Drug
Intelligence Center, issued in 1997 and obtained by The Herald. Fajardo was one
of the areas of Puerto Rico hit hardest by Hurricane Georges last month, but the
damage was not expected to affect the drug traffic.
With gunwales barely one or two feet above the water, the local smacks
almost impossible to spot on radar when waves are two or more feet high, said
U.S. Customs Agent Tom Svarc.
``They can come in at night at top speed, and even if we spot them, it's
chase because the water is just four to five feet deep in most places, said Svarc,
who patrols the area aboard an unmarked 42-foot speedboat.
It's in this final smuggling run that Dominican gangs join in the cocaine
handling the bulk of the arrivals, the shipments to the mainland and later distribution
in U.S. cities.
Dominican drug gangs ``transport approximately 12 to 33 percent of the
Colombian cocaine entering the United States each year, said the National Drug
Intelligence Center report, and use Puerto Rico ``as their primary staging area.
The report noted that the vast majority of Dominicans are law-abiding,
but it said
the Dominican gangs were perfectly positioned to go to work for the Colombians
when smuggling routes shifted from Mexico to the Caribbean.
Dominican smugglers have long been involved in sneaking illegal migrants
the 77 miles that separate their country from Puerto Rico, mostly aboard the same
kind of small fishing boats that drug smugglers now use.
And they work more cheaply: While Mexican smugglers usually charge 50 to
percent of a load's value for their work, the National Drug Intelligence Center
report said, the Dominican smugglers charge only 20 to 30 percent.
An estimated 50,000 Dominicans live in Puerto Rico and dominate a handful
coastal areas like Fajardo's Maternillo neighborhood, one of the main centers for
building the small fishing boats, known as yolas.
About 30 to 50 Dominican smuggling ``coordinators operate in Puerto Rico,
officials said, hiring out to Colombian producers to receive and transship drug
loads on a single-shipment basis.
They hire 10 to 30 workers to handle each load, DEA officials said, but
no small-time operations.
Ships and planes use sophisticated GPS equipment to pinpoint their locations,
smugglers use satellite phones and fraudulently obtained cellular phones to chat
with little fear of wiretaps, the report said.
U.S. officials believe they have begun putting serious dents in the Caribbean
routes since federal authorities declared the region a High Intensity Drug
Trafficking Area in 1996 and assigned it bigger enforcement budgets.
The DEA's Puerto Rican office, in charge of all the Caribbean, went from
drug-fighting agents in 1994 to more than 100 today, with plans to hit 156 by
October 1999. U.S. Customs went from about 50 agents to 154 today.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Dominican navy launched a coordinated effort
spring, Operation Frontier Lance, to step up patrols and coordination in area
``I've seen a significant increase in seizures since September as we began
coordinate federal and local assets, said Frank Figueroa, U.S. Customs chief for
Dominican President Leonel Fernandez has expressed his determination to
down on Dominican smugglers and has named tough young police and military
officers to key drug-fighting posts.
U.S. officials admit, however, that squeezing the Puerto Rico routes is
to force the Colombians to switch their routes elsewhere -- and say they have
already seen hints of this.
``Our latest evidence shows a shift to Haiti, said a U.S. drug expert in
``no longer as a transshipment point for Puerto Rico but as a jumping-off point for
direct shipments to South Florida.
Herald special correspondent Karl Ross contributed to this report.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald