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Securing our Nation’s Caribbean Border

In 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order that expanded the purview of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico to seek advice and develop recommendations on policies for the island that promote job creation, education, health care, clean energy, economic development, and public safety.  Addressing these issues has been an on-going effort for the Task force and the Administration. Today, the President announced the release of the 2015 Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy, a major step forward on matters of utmost importance to the people of Puerto Rico –  public health and public safety.

By delivering on this important recommendation, the Obama Administration, in an effort spearheaded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, seeks to substantially reduce the threat posed by drug trafficking, transnational organized crime, and associated violence to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In its 2011 report to the President, the Task Force concluded that both the capacity of local law enforcement and the efforts of the Federal agencies charged with public safety in Puerto Rico require a significant amount of attention from Federal and local stakeholders.

Strengthening Public Safety

Public safety is a major challenge in Puerto Rico.  During the Task Force’s public hearings, residents of Puerto Rico raised concerns about crime and the law enforcement response. The homicide rate in Puerto Rico is alarmingly high. Puerto Rico’s geographic location, with approximately 300 miles of unprotected shoreline, makes it especially vulnerable to transnational crime. Located along the Mona Passage, a heavily used shipping lane between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, the region has become an increasingly important point for drug trafficking between South America and the continental United States and Europe.

Drug traffickers have long used this region as a transshipment point.  Recently however, the nature of the trafficking has changed.  Due to stepped-up law enforcement efforts, drug traffickers have decreased air activity and increased maritime shipping.  There has also been an increase in detected maritime transport of cocaine loads to the Puerto Rico area.  According to the Puerto Rico Police Department, high homicide rates can be attributed to power struggles and turf wars among violent gangs and drug trafficking organizations whose members compete to supply the demand for both illegal and diverted legal drugs.  These groups frequently use intimidation, violence, and murder to gain and retain control of retail drug markets.

Cocaine is the principal drug threat and a source of associated violence throughout the Caribbean. The trafficking threat and violence is also associated with marijuana, heroin, and prescription drugs.  Illicit trafficking is a highly fluid enterprise.  The documented cocaine flow from the source zone to the United States via the Caribbean—including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Eastern Caribbean countries—has more than doubled in the past three years, from 38 metric tons (MT) in 2011, to 59 MT in 2012 and 91 MT in 2013, according to the interagency Consolidated Counterdrug Database. This marks the highest documented cocaine flow since 2003.

Unlawful firearms trafficking also poses a threat to public safety and contributes to the high homicide rate and drug-related violence.   The danger posed to children by the drug trade and gang violence continues to increase.  Criminal incidents that frequently occur in the school system include violence, vandalism, and property theft.  As drug trafficking activities increase in the region, so do related financial crimes.  Trafficking organizations have displayed limited sophistication in money laundering.   Rudimentary schemes to use the drug proceeds, either laundered through the financial system or transported to foreign locations, have been used in bulk-cash smuggling operations.  These conditions create an environment conducive to a broad range of corruption activities.  

In light of these challenges, the Task Force recommended that the various Federal agencies with security and law enforcement responsibilities convene a formal, interagency process of coordination and collaboration regarding Puerto Rico’s security and safety.  Improvements in public safety would benefit the people of Puerto Rico and help in the broader effort to combat drug trafficking throughout the region.

Federal Response to Date

Cooperative partnerships, expanded bilateral agreements, and training programs are essential force-multipliers that help counter the transnational drug threat.  Federal agencies must continue to leverage established partnerships among themselves and with local law enforcement agencies to capitalize on the unique authorities and capabilities of each organization.  Building and improving bilateral and multilateral partnerships through law enforcement agreements, professional exchanges, training, and joint operations is essential to reducing illicit drug flow through the region.

In response to increases in drug trafficking and related crime, Federal law enforcement agencies have expanded their efforts in the region.  The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have devoted resources to address drug-related violent crime on the islands and have coordinated with Federal and local partners to confront this ongoing threat to public safety. 

2015 Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy

Today’s announcement demonstrates the Obama Administration’s commitment to strengthen Puerto Rico’s public safety.  The 2015 Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy (Caribbean Strategy) articulates the U.S. framework for reducing the threats associated with drugs at the border and is guided by the following strategic objectives:

Strategic Objectives

  1. Enhance intelligence and information-sharing capabilities and processes associated with the Caribbean border.
  2. Interdict illicit drugs and drug proceeds at and between U.S. ports of entry in the Caribbean.
  3. Interdict illicit drugs and illicit drug proceeds in the air and maritime domains in and around the Caribbean border; maximize evidence and intelligence collection to support criminal investigations leading to associated and higher echelon networks.
  4. Disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations operating in and around the Caribbean border.
  5. Substantially reduce the level of drug related violent crime in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  6. Strengthen communities and reduce the demand for drugs.

The Caribbean Strategy outlines supporting actions and identifies the Federal agencies responsible for coordinating and executing these actions.  To ensure effective implementation, the Caribbean Strategy provides indicators to develop baselines and enable status tracking.

This Caribbean Strategy is aligned with the Task Force recommendation, and it complies with the report language accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (P.L. 113-76) (Appropriations Act), initiated by Puerto Rico’s congressional representative, Congressman Pedro Pierluisi, which requires that the Office of National Drug Control Policy submit to Congress a biennial Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy.