US Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations intercepted a small wooden vessel carrying two men and $3.6 million in cocaine on Sunday, the latest sign that the Caribbean smuggling routes popular in the 1980s are seeing renewed traffic.
Around midnight on October 23, a CBP patrol aircraft detected a 22-foot wooden boat with an outboard engine and two passengers, traveling eastward northwest of Aguadilla, a city in northwest Puerto Rico.
A CBP unit was deployed from Puerto Rico, stopping the vessel and taking the two men aboard, who claimed Dominican citizenship, into custody. On board, there was 283 pounds of contraband that tested positive for cocaine, an amount with an estimated value of $3.6 million, according to the CBP.
The seizure comes about two weeks after the CBP reported the capture of nearly 400 pounds of marijuana floating in the water or washed up on beaches around the Florida Keys and South Florida.
The marijuana intercepted was only worth about $300,000, but the seizures themselves appear to be part of an upswing in such incidents.
According to the CBP, during Fiscal Year 2015, which ran October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015, there were 49 such seizures. During Fiscal Year 2016, which ended September 30, those type of seizures nearly doubled, hitting 95.
Puerto Rico and South Florida are far apart, but the area around them is criss-crossed by smuggling routes, and reports over the last several years indicate a growing interest by smugglers in the routes that were heavily trafficked in the 1980s.
In 2013, William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, predicted that traffickers would shift back to Caribbean routes in response to increased enforcement in Central America.
In 2014, US officials estimated that the proportion of drugs shipped through the Caribbean had tripled, with the amount of cocaine traveling through the region increasing from 5% of the total to 16%.
The then-head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean division, Vito Salvatore Guarino, estimated that smugglers moved 90 to 100 tons through the region, more than the about 70 tons of previous years.
According to the DEA's 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, more than 90 metric tons of cocaine moved through the Caribbean in 2014, mostly on go-fast boats heading toward the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Many of those routes likely start on the Caribbean coasts of Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, or Panama.
The Caribbean's major islands have also seen more drug activity as those routes shift back into the region.
The Dominican Republic in particular has been seen as a major transshipment point for cocaine and other drugs originating in South and Central America. The country's government reported significant cocaine seizures in 2012 and 2013.
The country said late last year that Haiti had become the destination for traffickers moving drugs through the area, though there is reason to believe Hispaniola as a whole is still a popular transit point for drug trafficking.
Instability in Mexico's criminal underworld and increased enforcement there and in Central America may accelerate the shift toward Caribbean routes.
That said, however, the majority of the cocaine that reaches the US still travels through Mexico via Central America. The DEA said in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment that 87% of the cocaine flow into the US came through that region, while just 13% traveled through the Caribbean.
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