In May 2010, US President Barack Obama announced an initiative that sent 1,200 National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border.
Although critics saw the move as a back-door effort to beef up immigration enforcement, the Obama administration said its sole purpose was to combat drug trafficking and transportation issues that have exploded into all-out war south of the border since leftist President Felipe Calderon was elected.
Mexican foreign officials – who typically have few positive things to say about US border enforcement policies – actually welcomed the move, saying it would “strengthen efforts to combat transnational organized crime”.
However, what it may end up doing is simply pushing that traffic somewhere else.
It’s these kinds of possibilities that keep top police officials in the Caribbean, like Royal Cayman Islands Police Commissioner David Baines, up nights.
“The consequences of US success in Mexico…will directly force lucrative drug trade and the associated gangs to revisit their traditional transit routes and, may I suggest, place the Caribbean at risk of an escalating turf war as transit routes through our region are of necessity increasingly used,” Commissioner Baines said at a December forum with Caribbean leaders.
“Why does that concern me?” the commissioner rhetorically asked another public forum at the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce in January. “If people want to use drugs and they want to kill themselves that’s a matter for them. That’s one way of looking at it.
“Another way is that the profits made in drugs mean that the people who control the flows, the networks and the supply increasingly are heavily armed and they will use extreme violence to maintain their business activities.”
Drug enforcement causes two major problems, particularly for small Caribbean Islands. First, it is labour intensive, almost always requiring proactive policing and significant resources to stay ahead of the game.
Second, drug users – particularly those who use crack-cocaine – often become violent and seek to obtain cash for their habits using forcible means.
Some of that violence, Commissioner Baines believes, has already been on display in recent robberies on Grand Cayman where elderly residents or clerks working alone at small businesses have been beaten for no apparent reason – and for meagre amounts of cash.
Royal Cayman Islands Police Chief Superintendent John Jones says, based on his more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in the United Kingdom, excessive violence is often a sign of crack cocaine use.
“Some of the offences that we’ve seen, aggravated burglaries [involving] elderly people [as victims]….why do people need to use that much violence against frail, elderly people?”
Baines also noted the violence in some of the business robberies that were committed for relatively small amounts of money. He said police are looking into some of the cases that appeared to have been done for the reasons of gang initiation or training.
“That may be some explanation for small amounts of cash being targeted,” he said.
This raises the spectre of criminal gangs taking hold and operating on Caribbean Islands. And typically, those suspects will choose the path of least resistance, Baines says.
“They will migrate to safer locales to continue their criminality,” Baines said, adding that the need for law enforcement agencies to act regionally had never been more evident.
“If we’ve already got established networks, they will be exploited. So, there’s a real threat to us in the longer term to make sure our border security stems the drug trade, stops the delivery and prevents the operation of armed criminal gangs trying to control the drugs network.”
With the high-end drugs trade comes guns, and Baines has recently opined – somewhat controversially – that the supply of those weapons is made easier through access to the second-hand firearms market in the US.
“The prevalence of weaponry and the unrestricted sales of weapons – is now being exploited to secure large numbers [of weapons], which are smuggled to our region and emerge within the criminal element,” Baines says. “I have no interest in seeking to comment upon the national politics and the laws…of the US citizens and their constitution. However, at an international level – and specifically here in the Caribbean – the constitutional right to bear arms in the United States is directly contributing to the denial of the right to life for young men in the Caribbean.”
Reasons for concern
Reviewing the RCIPS crime statistics for 2010, one might get the impression that drugs-related crime is going down.
Not so, according to Commissioner Baines. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
“There are indications now that are suggesting that the Cayman Islands is being used as a hub for the supply of significant quantities of cocaine,” Baines says.
Police crime reports for 2010 indicate that the number of drug arrests fell by nearly 47 per cent when compared to 2009.
There are two reasons for the decline, Baines said. First is that the RCIPS is now focusing on drug suppliers, not street-level possession arrests.
“We had a particular undercover operation concerning drug supply all along the Seven Mile Beach area that took out not only those supplying at the front, but also the infrastructures behind them,” he says. “That’s going to be our tactical operation for the future.”
The second reason involves a lack of police staff, particularly early in 2010, that were available to focus on drugs crime.
A key indicator of Cayman’s growing cocaine problem can be identified in the quality of the drug coming through the borders.
According to Baines, this is primo stuff.
In the UK, the average street value is $55,000 pounds per kilo, and that is typical ‘cut’ with other products by the street-level dealers in order to extend their supply.
“The stuff we’re getting here is 89 per cent pure,” Baines says. “It’s straight out of the labs in central and south America that’s finding its way here.”
It is a concern for local law enforcement on several levels, not least of which is that foreign jurisdictions have begun to look at the Cayman Islands as a potential supply centre, Commissioner Baines says.
“The fact that direct flights out of Cayman are being found to contain significant amounts of drugs…means that other law enforcement agents will be looking closely at us,” he says.
There were two significant seizures of cocaine in the UK last year that involved flights from Cayman, Baines said. One shipment involved six kilogrammes of cocaine, another involved a shipment of 10 kilogrammes. Assuming the current street price per kilo in the UK to be $55,000, the larger shipment would have been worth a half-million dollars or more.
Details of both cases remained scant, but it has since been revealed that a local customs officer was suspended in connection with one of the cocaine shipments. The officer’s ultimate status with the customs service has never been made public.
Later in the year, Baines says, 44 kilogrammes were recovered after the drugs washed ashore in East End. It is likely that those drugs came either from an airdrop or a boat, the commissioner said. The drugs were burned at the George Town landfill days after their seizure.
“Those are just the issues that we have recovered,” Baines says. “It’s quite apparent to us that there’s increasing levels of cocaine available and being distributed on the Islands.”
The Cayman Islands are small by almost anyone’s standard.
They are three dots on the map, south of Cuba, west of Jamaica in the middle of a largely empty Western Caribbean Sea with a total area (all three Islands) of 102 square miles and a population of less than 60,000.
But for all that, Commissioner Baines says the country has a gigantic coastline to cover and does so mainly with five police patrol boats and one helicopter.
Moreover, police investigators are not limitless. In early 2010, amidst a spate of killings, RCIPS officers had to be pulled off their normal jobs to assist in those cases.
“When we have those major incidents, it means we strip detectives from other investigative purposes,” Baines says. “So the burglary squad was depleted, the Drugs Task Force was depleted.”
At one point, 14 additional police officers from the UK had to be brought in to “stabilise” the murder investigations.
This was the other major reason, according to the commissioner, that drugs arrests dropped from 382 in 2009 to 232 in 2010.
“That’s one of the areas that is very much proactive [referring to drug enforcement],” Baines says. “People don’t ring up and say ‘I’m in possession of drugs, I want to report a crime.’”
So drugs enforcement was, for a large portion of last year, “neglected out of need”, Baines says.
The results have been apparent.
“Some people who should have been arrested weren’t and they’ve been able to bring in and continue drug activity,” Baines says.
Since the middle of last year, RCIPS recruiting has continued apace and Baines says 23 new detectives – mainly from outside jurisdictions – have been brought in to fill the skills gap.
However, the overall police service remains about 40 officers down and recruitment efforts are continuing, Baines says.
Baines readily admits that local police will never be able to “arrest and convict their way out of the drug problem”. Education and social systems must change, and regional cooperation between Caribbean law enforcement agencies must improve.
“If we are to combat the threat, it is no longer sufficient to rely on….single departments or units, be they police or military,” Baines says. “The threat is such that alignments…by governments, judicial, police, military and civil society are absolutely essential…to prevent organised crime gangs from establishing a base in our communities. It will require nations to act collectively, to operate regionally and not locally.”