By Robin Wigglesworth in London
The Caribbean is again becoming an increasingly important transit route for drug-trafficking into the US as South American and Mexican drug cartels take advantage of the region’s economic problems to re-establish their operations.
About 9 per cent of all illegal drugs that entered the US came through the Caribbean last year, about twice the rate in 2011, William Brownfield, the US assistant secretary of state, estimated last month.
Experts say the surge in drug smuggling is largely caused by the region’s economic and financial problems, which has left a power vacuum for drug smugglers to exploit even as Mexico has cracked down on its own cartels and increased security on the US border.
“The trend in recent years is that the Caribbean has re-emerged as a key drug-trafficking transit route,” said Daniel Sachs, an analyst at Control Risks, a consultancy.
“The security forces in these islands are woefully unprepared to respond to this evolving threat, particularly in the current debt climate.”
Many Caribbean countries are struggling under large and swelling debt burdens, deep budget deficits and anaemic economic growth, forcing several to default in recent years. As a result, governments have slashed budgets, causing unemployment and crime to rise.
International drug cartels have either set up their own operations in the Caribbean or paid local gangs to support them. This has triggered a rise in violent crime, as guns and drugs flow into countries ill-equipped to deal with hardened gangs and cartels.
“It’s a very big problem,” said Sir Ronald Sanders, a former diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda and commentator on the region.
The Caribbean was an important transit route for South American drug traffickers in the 1980s and 1990s, but security improvements, more maritime patrols and better radars shifted smuggling to Central America and Mexico. That trend is reversing.
Central America remains the main transit route for drugs going to the US, but Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico and even some small statelets such as St Kitts and Nevis have become important transshipment points.
Mr Sachs compares it to a “balloon effect” where a squeeze on drug smuggling in Mexico has led to a swelling problem in the Caribbean. “Essentially, cartels are forever probing for weaknesses and evolving with the times,” he said.
Government efforts to clamp down have been dramatic but ineffective. A surge in violent crime in 2011 spurred Trinidad and Tobago to declare a state of emergency, but it only led to a temporary decline.
Under US pressure, Jamaica launched a bloody military operation against drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke in 2010, arresting and extraditing him to the US, but the local murder rate has kept increasing.
“Governments are incapable and unwilling to tackle the root causes of the problem – lack of job opportunities, socio-economic inequalities and so on,” Mr Sachs said. “Because of the debt situation, even if they wanted to do something, they couldn’t.”