By: Tony Best
To some U.S. officials they are “unmanned aerial vehicles” but to federal agents and Caribbean officers on the front line of the war against illegal drugs in the region they are drones.
Regardless of the label, the aircraft loaded with sophisticated equipment is being put into use as evidence mounts that both the Eastern and Western regions of the Caribbean are being used increasingly to ferry huge quantities of South American cocaine and Caribbean marijuana to Mexico via the archipelago of Caribbean islands and coastal states with the United States as the final destination. UN experts estimate the drug trade earns traffickers at least $13 billion annually.
The move to an introduction of drone flights across the Caribbean to detect narcotics in fast moving boats and in part sub-marine vessels has come after 18 months of tests over the Bahamas. It will amount to a dramatic increase in the use of the surveillance aircraft over the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and across the Gulf of Mexico. The drones are expected to cover the waters that wash the Eastern Caribbean, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico.
With the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration already mapping a flight path for the drones so the equipment on board can keep a close watch on ships, fishing boats and other vessels, the delivery of a new drone to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection base in Florida means the operation there will have an unmanned aircraft specifically directed at the Caribbean.
“We need help fighting this battle along the Caribbean border to protect U.S. citizens there being buffeted by violence,” said Luis Fortuno, Puerto Rico’s Governor recently.
With the addition of the new unmanned aerial vehicle, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security can use its fleet of nine drones to get the job done and it will be in will be in a position to double the area patrolled by the aircraft which can remain aloft longer than conventional equipment. But a question remains: how effective they are going to be?
According to U.S. officials, especially Coast Guard officers, Drug Enforcement Agency veterans, military personnel and civilian experts, the drones don’t have a stellar record in detecting drugs.
“We have no systematic evidence on how effective they are,” said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami counter-narcotics expert in Coral Gables Florida.
U.S. Air force General Douglas M. Frazer, put it differently.
“I am not sure because it’s a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that it will solve and fit into our problem set,” was the way the top military officer for the region put it.
General Frazer’s assessment is important because ships and manned aircraft under his command and assigned to the joint Interagency Task Force South which works with U.S. agencies and countries in the Caribbean and Latin America have had much success in the drug trafficking battle by seizing 119 metric tons of cocaine with a street value of $2.35 billion.
The U.S. has already predicted that drugs passing through the Eastern Caribbean would rise substantially in the next few years and it has pledged to assist the island-nations in their efforts to deal with the scourge which has contributed to a substantial rise in homicides in Puerto Rico and has been linked to the high death toll in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. In Puerto Rico, the homicide rate rose to a historic high of 1,136 last year, with eight of 10 killings there linked to drug trafficking. In the first six months of this year, 536 people lost their lives in Jamaica, 32 more than was reported in the corresponding period the year before. However, the incidence of major crimes involving shootings fell by almost 10 per cent; robberies plummeted by 26 per cent and break-ins declined by 16 per cent. In Trinidad and Tobago the toll so far this year has reached 223 deaths. Many of them have been linked to drugs.
Last year, U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and law enforcement, William Brownfield said that the push against trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border had forced traffickers to seek alternative routes for their business and Washington fully expected the Caribbean would be adversely affected because of the region’s proximity to the supply, transit and consuming countries.
He said in Miami several months ago that the increased use of sophisticated submersibles and semi-submersibles by South American traffickers would make interdiction more difficult, requiring the need for a more comprehensive anti-narcotics strategy. He made his remarks at a meeting of U.S. and Latin American diplomats and other government officials.