Caribbean cocaine seizures on the rise

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According to U.S. federal court records, Caymanian businessman Bryce Merren had plans to acquire thousands of kilograms of cocaine prior to his arrest by undercover American agents in March. 

Whether amounts of 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000 kilograms of cocaine referred to in the court records actually existed, or were just fictional amounts proffered by U.S. agents investigating the case, may be determined at Mr. Merren’s upcoming trial. However, according to the most recent U.S. Navy and Coast Guard drug removal statistics, getting cocaine in such large amounts is quite possible in the Caribbean. 

According to U.S. Coast Guard stats, more than 42,500 kilograms of cocaine were removed from the waters of the central and eastern Caribbean shipping routes between October 2011 and this April. Such an amount could have an estimate “street” value of US$1.5 billion. 

Removal statistics include amounts of cocaine that are tossed overboard by suspects fleeing patrol boats or which otherwise end up in the water, by drugs transport boats sinking, for example.  

The numbers do not include any drug interdiction by foreign authorities, including British naval ships or any Caribbean country’s marine patrols.  

Particularly, cocaine seizures in the central and eastern Caribbean skyrocketed during the last U.S. budget year. From October 2012 to September 2013, records show 23,597 kilograms of cocaine were removed from the waters by U.S. marine patrols.  

So far in the current federal budget year, 9,428 kilograms have been seized in less than seven months. That’s about the same as what U.S. Coast Guard and Naval patrols found in all of the 2012 financial year.  

Prior to fiscal year 2012, cocaine removal figures in the Caribbean were relatively small between 2009 and 2011, never reaching above 807 kilograms in any of those years.  

Coast Guard officers are reluctant to venture theories regarding why so many more cocaine shipments are being removed in recent years from Caribbean waters, but Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Commissioner David Baines offered one possible explanation as early as 2010.  

“The consequences of U.S. success in Mexico [tightening security at the borders, as the Obama administration did between 2009 and 2010] … 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 2010 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 2011. “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. This raises the specter of criminal gangs taking hold and operating on Caribbean islands. And typically, those suspects will choose the path of least resistance,” Mr. Baines said. “They will migrate to safer locales to continue their criminality,” Mr. 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,” he said. 

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U.S. Coast Guard crew recover bales of contraband from a fishing vessel suspected of illicit activity while on patrol with Operation Martillo. – PHOTO: U.S. Coast Guard

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