October 27, 2020

Understanding the United States’ new Caribbean border counternarcotics strategy

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carribean-strategyBy Pat DeQuattro

The illegal trade in drugs, people and weapons is a $750 billion global criminal enterprise that undermines the governance and rule of law of those countries impacted by the cultivation, transportation and distribution of the illicit products and trafficking. Many countries in the illicit drug transit corridors are gripped by staggering unemployment, poverty and widespread violence at the hands of traffickers who are attempting to supply our nation’s demand for cocaine. Documented cocaine flow from South America into the Central and Eastern Caribbean region has doubled over the past four years from forty-two metric tons in 2010 to ninety-five metric tons in 2013, and now represents approximately 15 percent of total documented cocaine flow in the Western Hemisphere.

The Office of National Drug Control Strategy (ONDCP) has recently released a Caribbean Border Counternarcotics strategy to address Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) and other Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) operating in and around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This new strategy is the third ONDCP regional counternarcotics strategy, along with the Southwest Border and Northern Border regions, and has the stated goal of substantially reducing the threat posed by drug trafficking, transnational organized crime and associated violence to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The threat in the Western Hemisphere: Blurring the lines between crimes, drugs and destabilizing governments

TCOs manage sophisticated networks and their illicit activities undermine governance, disrupt trade and free market societies, and exhaust fragile security organizations. Given the enormous flow of drugs from South America through Central American countries and the island nations of the Caribbean, there is no shortage of impacts in terms of crimes and destabilizing trends. Eight of the ten most violent nations in the world are in the Western Hemisphere. Unemployment, poverty and widespread violence are common denominators in many of transit zone countries, and violent crime is often a result.

Prior to the start of the Caribbean Border initiative, the 2012 murder rate in Puerto Rico was 26.5 per 100,000 people, and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the 2010 murder rate was 52.6. As a comparison, these statistics far exceed the United States’ 2012 murder rate of 4.7 per 100,000. Written to be a comprehensive plan, this new strategy is not only focused on interdicting the flow of drugs into the region, but also on reducing crimes, reducing the demand for illicit drugs and strengthening communities.

The Caribbean Border Region: A critical corridor within the Western Hemisphere

Under this strategy, the “Caribbean Border” is defined as the jurisdictions of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which consists of the entire coastal circumference of the main island of Puerto Rico; the islands of Vieques and Culebra; and the three U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. It also includes a layered approach to secure the maritime and air approaches to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and includes the broad swath of ocean that connects drug-producing countries in South America and transshipment countries with Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

This “pushing out” the borders approach to focus primary counterdrug efforts on removing drugs closer to the source country is consistent with ONDCP’s National Drug Control Strategy, and it greatly increases the scope of area covered under this new strategy. In total, the Caribbean Border includes approximately 748 miles of coastline, and the vast maritime and air approaches to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It is worth noting that this Caribbean Border region is of special interest to TCOs, because once drugs and/or other contraband arrive into Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, they are technically within U.S. territorial boundaries. In turn, this frees them of international customs control and inspection standards.

Highlights of ONDCP’s new Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy

In summary, the strategic goal of the new strategy is to substantially reduce the threat posed by drug trafficking transnational organized crime by enhancing intelligence and information-sharing capabilities; interdicting illicit drugs and drug proceeds in and around the region; disrupting and dismantling the groups responsible for the trafficking; reducing the level of drug-related violent crime; strengthening communities; and reducing the demand for drugs.

These are all ambitious objectives that symbolize a unity of effort to achieve a national security goal. The new strategy also includes measurable indicators to determine progress in implementing of the plan. Importantly, the new document also provides a summary of supporting actions necessary to achieve each of the objectives and also identifies the multiple U.S. federal agencies responsible for coordinating and executing these actions.

A comprehensive strategy to address the threat

This new strategy is noteworthy in its objectives to address both supply and demand reduction efforts. As detailed, there are nearly twenty federal, state and U.S. territorial agencies that lead or support the many objectives and supporting efforts under this plan. It is a comprehensive approach to address a complex threat in the region, and thus involves traditional supply-side drug control resources including the Department of Juice, Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Homeland Security, as well as demand-side efforts such as strengthening communities and reducing drug demand which involve components of the Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the Department of Health and Human Services.

Flexibility is needed across the Western Hemisphere

History tells us that TCOs and DTOs are incredibly flexible organizations that shift tactics and smuggling corridors across the maritime, land and air domain from source countries through transit zones to reach illicit markets. As the United States continues to promote border security and increases law enforcement pressure on the southwest border as well as through recent State Department and DOD efforts in the Central America and Mexico smuggling corridors, TCOs have sought to enhance their criminal networks and trafficking activities through the Caribbean corridor.

We can anticipate the shifting of trafficking corridors will continue as coordinated, interagency forces address the Caribbean Border. TCOs thrive in areas with poor and weak governance and operate with impunity where corruption is commonplace, as these criminal activities have no regard for sovereign borders. Success near Puerto Rico will shift the threat to other corridors in the Western Hemisphere and will require continued focus across the region, including the Central Caribbean and emerging U.S. strategies in Central America.

Success requires resources

One future challenge for Caribbean Border strategy and the broader Western Hemisphere may be the issue of resources to sustain a layered security strategy. Currently, U.S. interdiction assets deployed within the Western Hemisphere remain well below historical sourcing levels due to limited availability and competing requirements for their employment elsewhere around the globe. For DOD ships and aircraft, this may be especially challenging, as recent DOD strategic plans call for a pivot to the Pacific region.

Under DHS, the U.S. Coast Guard is attempting to surge cutter forces to the Western Hemisphere to pick up the slack, but is challenged by older platforms with limited capabilities that are prone to frequent maintenance issues. Most other agency components are equally stressed with shifting priorities and limited resources, tasked with balancing other hot-button priorities such as terrorism, ISIS, cyber threats, immigration policies and the southwest border region. For this Caribbean Border strategy to be successful, the sustained deployment of adequate resources in a layered approach, where cocaine loads are most concentrated in terms of size and purity and vulnerable to detection, is critical.

ONDCP’s leadership is critical

As a component of the Executive Office of the President, ONDCP was created to advise the President on drug-control issues, coordinate drug-control activities and related funding across the federal government. This new strategy reinforces ONDCP’s role as a strategic coordinator of interagency drug control efforts. Given the complexity and sheer number of U.S. agencies involved and the competition for resources to support vital U.S. interests, ONDCP’s leadership, coordination and advocacy for a unified and properly resourced drug control strategy is paramount.

Since Sept 11, 2001, 450,000 Americans have died from drug use and drug violence, and the impact of the transnational organized crime across the transit zones of Central America and the Caribbean border, as well as our homeland, has been profound. To achieve success, the Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy will take a well-coordinated and flexible whole-of-government effort and sustained resources to meet ONDCP’s stated goals to substantially reduce the threat posed by TCOs near the Caribbean Border and across the broader Western Hemisphere region. This strategy is a step in the right direction.

Captain Pat DeQuattro, U.S. Coast Guard, is a 2014-2015 military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served most recently as executive director the deputy commandant for mission support, where he was responsible for all facets of support for Coast Guard human capital, engineering, acquisitions, and information technology programs. DeQuattro previously commanded Coast Guard Sector Key West, Florida; his operational deployments include drug interdiction in the waters off Central and South America and command of the cutter Sanibel. DeQuattro served as military aide to presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He is a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the University of Illinois as well as numerous professional military education programs.

IMAGE: The crew of the Coast Guard Fast Response Cutter Margaret Norvell interdicts a go-fast with two drug smugglers and eighteen bales of cocaine in the Caribbean Sea, January 31, 2015. (Ricardo Castrodad/Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System)
For more on this story go to: http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/03/17/understanding-the-united-states-new-caribbean-border-counternarcotics-strategy/

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