DEA Congressional Testimony
May 09, 2000

Statement by:

Michael S. Vigil
Special Agent in Charge
Caribbean Field Division
Drug Enforcement Administration

Before the:

Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Oversight, Committee on the Judiciary


May 9, 2000

Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee: I appreciate the opportunity to appear today to discuss the issue of drug trafficking throughout the Caribbean. I would first like to thank the Subcommittee for its continued support of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and overall support of drug law enforcement.

As all of you are aware, the international drug syndicates operating throughout our hemisphere are resourceful, adaptable and extremely powerful. These syndicates have an unprecedented level of sophistication and are more powerful and influential than any of the organized crime enterprises preceding them. Traditional organized crime syndicates, operating within the United States over the course of last century, simply cannot compare to the Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations functioning in this hemisphere. These drug trafficking organizations have at their disposal an arsenal of technology, weapons and allies, corrupted law enforcement, and government officials enabling them to dominate the illegal drug market in ways not previously thought possible. The leaders of these drug trafficking organizations oversee a multi-billion dollar cocaine and heroin industry which have wreaked havoc on communities throughout the United States

Over the last two decades, cocaine trafficking over the United States' southern border has shifted between the Southwest border and the South Florida/Caribbean corridor. In the 1980s, most of the cocaine that entered the United States transited the Caribbean and South Florida. With increased law enforcement pressure, the South American cartels eventually built new alliances with criminals in Mexico in order to gain access to their long-established smuggling routes into the United States.

The Colombian drug cartels turned increasingly to the Southwest border in the 1990s. By June, 1996 approximately 70 percent of the cocaine in the United States transited Mexico, prompting the United States to concentrate its law enforcement resources on the Southwest border. Today, five years into the Southwest Border Initiative, drug trafficking is once again increasing in and through the Caribbean/South Florida corridor.

For purposes of this hearing, I will provide an overview and assessment of the drug trafficking situation in the Caribbean, then specifically address drug-related issues in Puerto Rico and Haiti. In concluding, I will briefly discuss some recently concluded joint law enforcement operations and initiatives in the Caribbean.

Trafficking through the Caribbean to the United States:

The Caribbean has long been an important transit zone for drugs entering the United States and Europe from South America. The drugs are transported through the region, to both the United States and Europe, through a wide variety of routes and methods. The primary method for smuggling large quantities of cocaine through the Caribbean to the United States is via maritime vessels. Go-fast boats (small launches with powerful motors), bulk cargo freighters, and containerized cargo vessels are the most common conveyances for moving large quantities of cocaine through the region. Drug traffickers also routinely transport smaller quantities of cocaine from Colombia to clandestine landing strips in the Caribbean, using single or twin-engine aircraft. Traffickers also airdrop cocaine loads to waiting land vehicles and/or maritime vessels.

Couriers transport smaller quantities of cocaine on commercial flights from the Caribbean to the United States. Couriers transport cocaine by concealing small multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine on their person or in baggage. Couriers also transport small quantities (up to one kilogram) of cocaine by ingesting the product.

Compared to cocaine, heroin movement through the Caribbean is limited. Heroin is generally not consumed in the Caribbean, but rather is transshipped to Puerto Rico or the Continental United States. Almost all of the heroin transiting the Caribbean originates in Colombia. Couriers generally transport kilogram quantities of Colombian heroin on commercial flights from South America to Puerto Rico or the Continental United States, concealing the heroin on their person or in baggage. Couriers also transport smaller quantities (up to one kilogram) of heroin by concealing the heroin through ingestion. The couriers sometimes make one or two stops at various Caribbean islands in an effort to mask their original point of departure from law enforcement.

Jamaica remains the only significant Caribbean source country for marijuana destined to the United States. Go-fast boats from Jamaica often transport multi-hundred kilogram quantities of marijuana through Cuban and Bahamian waters to Florida.

The Caribbean also plays an important role in drug-related money laundering. Many Caribbean countries have well-developed offshore banking systems and bank secrecy laws that facilitate money laundering. In countries with less developed banking systems, money is often moved through these countries in bulk shipments of cash - the ill-gotten proceeds of selling illicit drugs in the United States. The ultimate destination of the currency and/or assets is other Caribbean countries or South America.

Drug Trafficking Through Puerto Rico:

More than ever, international drug trafficking organizations utilize Puerto Rico as a major point of entry for the transshipment of multi-ton quantities of cocaine being smuggled into the United States. Puerto Rico has become known as a gateway for drugs destined for cities on the East Coast of the United States. Puerto Rico's 300-mile coastline, the vast number of isolated cays, and six million square miles of open water between the U.S. and Colombia, make the region difficult to patrol and ideal for a variety of smuggling methods.

Only 360 miles from Colombia's North Coast and 80 miles from the East Coast of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico is easily reachable by twin engine aircraft hauling payloads of 500 to 700 kilograms of cocaine. The "go-fast" boats make their round trip cocaine runs to the Southern coast of Puerto Rico in less than a day. Today, cocaine and heroin traffickers from Colombia have transformed Puerto Rico into the largest staging area in the Caribbean for illicit drugs destined for the U.S. market.

Once the illicit narcotics are smuggled into Puerto Rico, they are routinely stored in secluded, mountainous areas of the island until transportation to the Continental United States can be arranged. The contraband is then repackaged into smaller shipments in preparation for the move. The narcotics are smuggled out of Puerto Rico via commercial maritime vessels and on commercial airlines, either in the possession of couriers, or concealed in cargo.

Puerto Rico is an active Caribbean sea and air transportation thoroughfare. The island boasts the third busiest seaport in North America and fourteenth busiest in the world, as well as approximately 75 daily commercial airline flights to the continental United States. This presents an attractive logistical opportunity for drug trafficking organizations. The sheer volume of commercial activity is the traffickers' greatest asset. Criminal organizations have utilized their financial capabilities to corrupt mechanics; longshoremen; airline employees; and ticket counter agents; as well as government officials and others, whose corrupt practices broaden the scope of the trafficking.

Not only has corruption of legitimate business become a problem on the island, but Colombian drug trafficking organizations will routinely pay local criminal transportation organizations up to 20 percent of their product (cocaine) for their services. This form of payment has acted as a catalyst for the development of a very profitable, but competitive, local distribution market. The interaction between Colombian drug traffickers and local transporters, along with the resulting distribution market, is commonly referred to as the "spill-over effect." This "spill-over effect" has resulted in an increase in violence and bloodshed within the Puerto Rican community. It is estimated that about 80 percent of all documented homicides in Puerto Rico are drug related. Law enforcement efforts are further impeded by the close-knit relationships shared by the drug trafficking organizations, which have developed and been fostered over the years.

Personnel Challenges in Puerto Rico:

The open use of the Caribbean as a narcotics transshipment center has created a public safety crisis in Puerto Rico, and DEA must assign resources to the island to address this threat. Although this is necessary, we have had continuing difficulties retaining federal law enforcement personnel in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Few personnel from the Continental United States are willing to accept a transfer to Puerto Rico, and those who do so often want to leave soon after arrival. Such quality of life issues as inadequate public services, unreliable utilities, limited accessibility of medical care, the high cost of living, an exclusionary social structure, limited availability of appropriate schools for dependent children, and the high incidence of crime have contributed to early turnover and family separations. As a result, DEA has in place the following incentive packages for Special Agents, Diversion Investigators, and Intelligence Analysts relocating to Puerto Rico:

  • Relocation incentives of up to 25% of base pay (not to exceed $15,000) are tied directly to remaining in Puerto Rico.

  • a Foreign Language Bonus Program of up to 5% of base pay;

  • a Tour of Duty Office of Preference offer upon completion of the assignment;

  • Administrative leave available to find adequate housing and complete moving arrangements;

  • 5 year, Government funded access, in the San Juan area, to Department of Defense schools (This now includes the children of support personnel.);

  • additional Home Leave, granted upon extension of assignment;

  • Security assistance for threatened employees, ranging from home and personal automobile security systems to removal from the area;

  • a 10% Cost of Living adjustment; and

  • Department of Defense Commissary privileges for individuals on tour agreements.

DEA is further exploring the possibility of instituting incentive initiatives, which are commensurate with our foreign office assignments. However, DEA has not yet formulated an official position on making Puerto Rico a foreign posting, as Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth of the United States. There would need to be a change in State Department regulations in addition to the passage of legislation to establish service in Puerto Rico as a foreign posting.

Haiti: Drug Trafficking Crossroads of the Caribbean:

Haiti is strategically located in the central Caribbean, occupying the western half of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. At 27,750 square kilometers, the country is slightly larger than the state of Maryland. With the Caribbean to the south, and the open Atlantic Ocean to the north, Haiti is in an ideal position to facilitate the movement of cocaine and heroin from Colombia to the U.S. DEA is represented on the Island of Hispaniola by the Port-au-Prince Country office in Haiti and the Santo Domingo Country Office in the Dominican Republic.

The island of Hispaniola is just under 430 miles from Colombia's most northern point, and easily accessible by twin engine aircraft hauling payloads of 500 to 700 kilos of cocaine. The two countries on the island, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, share similar coastal features, facilitating intra-island boat traffic. Just as is the case with the Dominican Republic, Haiti presents an ideal location for the staging and transshipment of drugs. Furthermore, there is effectively no border control between the two countries, allowing essentially unimpeded traffic back and forth. In addition, there is no effective law enforcement or judicial system in Haiti, so there are few legal impediments to drug trafficking. Recently, DEA has significantly increased manpower on Haiti (from one to seven Special Agents) and increased interdiction efforts to counter airdrops and identify freighter shipments. However, recent statistics released by The Interagency Assessment of Cocaine Movement (IACM), in which the DEA participates, indicates that approximately 15 % of the cocaine entering the United States transits either Haiti or the Dominican Republic.

Due to the numerous uncontrolled points of entry and internal instability, vast amounts of narcotics from South America arrive in Haiti after being transported across the porous border with the Dominican Republic, and then shipped on to Puerto Rico

Trafficking Routes and Methods in Haiti:

Drug smuggling through Haiti is aided by the country's long coastline, mountainous interior, numerous uncontrolled airstrips, its 193-mile border with the Dominican Republic, and its location in the Caribbean. Haiti's thriving contraband trade, weak democratic institutions, and fledgling police force and judiciary system, contribute to its utilization by drug traffickers as a transshipment point.

As is the case throughout much of the Caribbean, the primary method for smuggling cocaine into Haiti is via maritime vessels. Traffickers also smuggle cocaine from Colombia into Haiti via general aviation; either by airdrops at sea or by landing at clandestine strips. Other common conveyances for smuggling cocaine into Haiti include cargo freighters, containerized cargo vessels, fishing vessels, and couriers on commercial aircraft.

As cocaine enters Haiti, it is usually stored locally until it can be shipped to the United States or other international markets. Cocaine is often smuggled out of Haiti in containerized cargo or on bulk cargo freighters directly to Miami. The cocaine shipments aboard cargo freighters are occasionally off-loaded to smaller vessels prior to arrival in the Continental United States (CONUS). Cocaine is also sometimes transferred overland from Haiti to the Dominican Republic for further transshipment to Puerto Rico, the CONUS, Europe, and Canada.

There are three primary smuggling routes for cocaine through Haiti. The first brings cocaine from Colombia into Haiti via general aviation conducting airdrops at sea. The second route is from source countries, via Panama or Venezuela, by commercial shipping. The third route is from source countries, via Panama or Venezuela, in coastal or fishing vessels.

A Hemispheric Law Enforcement Response:

With the assistance of state and local partners domestically as well as counterparts in foreign governments, DEA works to build cases against, and ultimately incarcerate, the leaders of these sophisticated criminal syndicates as well as the underlings they send to other countries. Over time, this strategy serves to steadily undermine a criminal organization's ability to conduct business, leaving it even more vulnerable to law enforcement strategies. Successful cases against the leaders of international drug trafficking groups most often originate from investigations being conducted in or having a nexus to, the United States.

The Caribbean Corridor poses several impediments for a successful law enforcement strategy. First, the traffickers' use of sophisticated compartments in freighters make inspections very time consuming and laborious. Second, the volume and variety of commercial cargo flowing through the Caribbean further exacerbates inspection and interdiction efforts. Third, the sheer vastness of the Caribbean frequently makes it difficult to coordinate enforcement efforts with other countries in the region. As such, any meaningful, effective interdiction program must almost exclusively depend on quality, time sensitive intelligence. What was needed in the Caribbean corridor was an intelligence support network that would effectively serve the countries in the area.

As a result, the Caribbean Field Division, in an attempt to diffuse this intelligence void, created the UNICORN system (Unified Caribbean On-Line Regional Network). With this system, participating Caribbean law enforcement agencies can share photographs, data, and information concerning various targets, locations, and groups involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. The Drug Enforcement Administration loans the equipment to participating agencies and provides training to host-nation counterparts, as well as installing and implementing the system.

The UNICORN system has already reaped tremendous benefits, as exhibited in the success of Operations Columbus, Genesis and most recently, Conquistador. These enforcement operations, planned and coordinated by the Caribbean Field Division, have severely disrupted drug trafficking organizations throughout the Caribbean region. The first of these operations, dubbed Genesis, was a bi-national initiative designed to foster cooperation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Due to a mutual, long-standing mistrust, Haiti and the Dominican Republic had never before coordinated anti-drug efforts. The second action, titled Operation Columbus, was a multi-national operation, comprised of fifteen nations and their respective law enforcement agencies. The final initiative, the recently concluded Operation Conquistador, was a multi-national regional operation designed to expand upon the successes realized in Operation Columbus. The following is a brief synopsis of each operation:

Operation Genesis:

In concept, Operation Genesis was designed to foster and maintain cooperation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This operation, which was conducted during November 1998, resulted in 126 arrests throughout Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Prior to Operation Genesis, Haiti and the Dominican Republic had never before coordinated their anti-drug efforts. However, the results garnered through Operation Genesis will undoubtedly assist in improving the ability to coordinate anti-drug efforts on the island of Hispañola.

The long-term objectives for Operation Genesis were to promote the exchange of information between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, facilitate the integration and coordination of Haitian and Dominican anti-drug efforts, establish a mechanism that will support the counter-drug effort, develop institutional mentoring and training, and disrupt drug trafficking operations that are being conducted on the island of Hispañola.

The operation was executed in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, using roadblocks at strategic locations and border crossing points, interdiction operations at the international airports and seaports, and United States Coast Guard maritime interdiction along the southern coast of Hispañola.

Operation Genesis resulted in unprecedented exchanges of law enforcement cooperation by both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. As a result, the Haitian National Police (HNP) assigned an officer and an analyst to the Dominican National Drug Control Agency's (DNDC) Santo Domingo office, and four (4) more HNP officers were stationed at Dominican border crossing points. DNDC officials, on the other hand, were assigned to the HNP headquarters' at Port-au-Prince, as well as several Haitian border crossing points.

The exchange of information was further expedited by the UNICORN system, which facilitated data base checks of suspicious persons and vehicles that were stopped. The information was sent to the Caribbean Field Division (CFD)/San Juan office where system checks were performed. The information was then sent back to the HNP via the UNICORN system.

Operation Columbus:

Operation Columbus was a multi-national regional effort involving the island nations of the Caribbean, in addition to Colombia, Venezuela and Panama. The operation focused on air, land and maritime interdiction, eradication and clandestine airstrip denial. DEA's Santo Domingo Country Office and Trinidad and Tobago Country Office served as the northern and southern command posts. The UNICORN system was used to facilitate the exchange of actionable intelligence. Operation Columbus's principle objectives were:

  • The development of a cohesive/cooperative environment among source and transit countries,
  • Disruption of drug trafficking activities,
  • The consolidation of the counterdrug efforts in the Caribbean transit zone,
  • The continued development of a comprehensive regional strategy.

Operation Columbus was planned and initiated by the CFD to severely impact the drug trafficking activities in the Caribbean and source country areas. Columbus was implemented through interdiction and eradication efforts, enforcement operations involving the use of undercover agents, confidential sources, Title III interceptions, and surveillance.

Operation Conquistador:

Operation Conquistador was a 17-day multi-national drug enforcement operation involving 26 countries of the Caribbean, Central and South America. The operation was simultaneously launched on March 10, 2000, in Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, Montserrat, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Anguila, St. Martin, British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Grenada, Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Aruba, Curacao, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The primary objective of Operation Conquistador was to develop an effective regional strategy intended to disrupt drug trafficking activities and criminal organizations operating throughout the Caribbean.

Operation Conquistador's main objectives were: 1) The development of a cohesive and cooperative environment between source and transit countries; 2) The integration within each country of all counterdrug entities; 3) The continued development of a comprehensive regional strategy; 4) To facilitate the exchange of information between the participating countries with the use of the Unified Caribbean On-line Regional Network (UNICORN); 5) The mentoring and training of counter-drug entities in host countries; 6) To impact and disrupt drug trafficking organizations in the Caribbean area and source countries.

Command and control of the operation was executed from the DEA Caribbean Field Division in San Juan, PR, with forward command posts in Trinidad & Tobago and Dominican Republic. The U.S. Coast Guard provided expanded presence of interdiction assets throughout the Caribbean and executed air and maritime command and control of sea and airborne drug interdiction assets from all countries. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) conducted traces of all seized weapons. The operation concluded on March 26, 2000.

Although the arrests and seizures in Operation Conquistador were extremely impressive, they, however, were secondary to the cooperation and coordination among the 26 countries that participated in this endeavor. Despite limited resources and infrastructure in many of the countries, all responded with notable efforts and results. Throughout the duration of the operation, all participants exchanged information with each other through the UNICORN system.


The transit of illegal drugs throughout the Caribbean creates unique challenges to law enforcement. DEA is aggressively addressing the drug trafficking threat and working to improve the ability of DEA personnel assigned to the region to confront the threat. In addition, DEA will continue to assist and support our Caribbean counterparts in the counterdrug arena. With the recent successes of the law enforcement initiatives I detailed earlier, cooperation among the DEA and the island nations in the region are continually progressing. We must sustain this cooperative effort to effectively identify and target the drug organizations operating throughout the Caribbean.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee. I appreciate the interest you and the subcommittee have shown in DEA's drug law enforcement efforts in the Caribbean. At this time, I will be happy to answer any questions you or the other committee members may have.

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