Puerto Rico, Drug Corridor to the Mainland United States

On the western coast of Puerto Rico, it’s wheels up for yet another night of high-tech hunting. Hunting, for cocaine smugglers.

“This boat looks interesting,” says officer Creighton Skeen, as he sits onboard a specially designed US Customs and Border Protection airplane. He and his partner typically sit alone, dimly lit in green, staring at and analyzing their wide-screens, which show the boats below.

On these routine missions, officer Skeen uses infra-red cameras, radar and one-the-ground intelligence to alert CBP 4 engine fast boats on the water when and where to interdict. This night, they’re focused on the 60 mile stretch between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

"Before, we didn't' see as many mother ships coming to Puerto Rico,” says Skeen. “Now, they're becoming ordinary."

And almost as ordinary, enormous busts like the one this week along the coast of Ponce. So much cocaine, it took a production line of people to haul heavy bag after heavy bag from the police cargo van to the table. Some of the cocaine bricks were labeled with a sticker showing a drawing of a threatening tiger, to discern which drug dealing organization supplied the coke, and who is to be paid the $20,000 for the kilo. By the time it arrives in the states, that kilo sells for $25,000.

This bust in total, “approximately 1000 kilos,” says Pedro Jasner, Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration, “with a street value of 80-million dollars."

The US Commonwealth is booming as a trans-shipment point for the South American drug cartels. Because once the drugs get here, they’re much more easily smuggled into the US mainland as “domestic cargo,” with far fewer inspections.

But the eyes of US law enforcement are watching. CBP officers also operate in the bowels of the San Juan Post Office Processing Center, where the x-ray and cut open suspect parcels headed from the US Virgin Islands to the US, and vice versa. These mail inspections reveal the multi-billion dollar drug trade there, as well. In one box destined for South Carolina, three tightly-wrapped “burritos,” a package, within a package, within a package. Masked with laundry detergent, the chemical test confirms the inner package’s white powder is indeed cocaine.  Another package, once cut open, immediately engulfs the room in a distinctive aroma.

“Most of the time it’s marijuana, cocaine and weapons,” says CBP Supervisor Carlos Morell.

But the bulk of the explosion in smuggling is coming in via boat, like the 1000 kilos captured off Ponce. Most of the drugs, agents say, are destined for the US East Coast, mainly entering the states through the Miami and New York City regions.

“We need more resources and this is the proof,” says Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico Police Superintendent.

"We're not just saying it, we're showing it. 80% of this, 800 kilos, would have been going to the northeast corridor."

What Puerto Rico’s police and Governor have been calling for is initiating the Caribbean Border Initiative, more money and resources dedicated to reducing the flow of drugs from South America to the US Mainland. The Southwest Border Initiative along the Mexican border resulted in a doubling—if not tripling—of officers there.  But due to apparent funding issues, the White House—which didn’t comment for this story--hasn’t committed.

The consequence of the drug trade locally is surging crime, 70% of which is directly connected to drug gangs, according to police. Last year there were more than 1100 murders in Puerto Rico; this year, more than 500. The Puerto Rican murder rate is now 6 times higher than in the states.

And for officer Skeen, flying above the boat traffic at midnight, for the time being, he sees no imminent change.

"As long as there's a need--a demand--for Cocaine, we'll be seeing this. It's not going away."

Phil Keating is national correspondent for Fox News Channel out of the Miami bureau. 

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