The Miami Herald
October 11, 1998
Puerto Rico new cocaine entry point
Dominican smugglers devise coastal gateway

             By JUAN O. TAMAYO
             Herald Staff Writer

             FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- At first glance, little about this beach district suggests
             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 Colombian
             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 the past
             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 most
             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 -- its
             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 police
             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 a day,
             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
             Dominican Republic.

             A few of those shipments are later smuggled directly to the United States. But
             most are smuggled into Puerto Rico, put aboard cargo containers and shipped by
             sea to the mainland, DEA officials say.

             Small boats

             In most cases, the final smuggling run into Puerto Rico involves small, locally made,
             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 way of
             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 are
             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 tough to
             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 traffic,
             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.

             Migrant trade

             Dominican smugglers have long been involved in sneaking illegal migrants across
             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 60
             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 of
             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, DEA
             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 these are
             no small-time operations.

             Ships and planes use sophisticated GPS equipment to pinpoint their locations, and
             smugglers use satellite phones and fraudulently obtained cellular phones to chat
             with little fear of wiretaps, the report said.

             Law enforcement

             U.S. officials believe they have begun putting serious dents in the Caribbean drug
             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 32
             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 this
             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 to
             coordinate federal and local assets, said Frank Figueroa, U.S. Customs chief for
             Puerto Rico.

             Dominican President Leonel Fernandez has expressed his determination to crack
             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 only likely
             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 Washington,
             ``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.


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