The managers at Caucedo Multimodal are proud of their international connections. Running the biggest port in the Dominican Republic, located just east of the capital, Santo Domingo, is busy work.
*This story is part of a three-part investigation looking at how the Dominican Republic became a crossroads for the transnational cocaine trade between North America, South America, and Europe, involving local kingpins, international drug traffickers, and venal politicians. Read the full investigation here.
“We have routes to every big port in every continent,” one former administrator told InSight Crime during a visit in 2021.
This message was reinforced by slick marketing videos found online and glossy posters that lined the walls of Caucedo’s administrative buildings. The image being projected was of a fast-moving and futuristic port, surrounded by aquamarine waters and operating under the slogan “intelligent logistics solutions, covering every link in the supply chain.”
Transnational entrepreneurs have taken note of this promise. As have transnational drug traffickers.
This year has marked a serious uptick in cocaine seizures. By the end of June, the country’s antinarcotics agency (Dirección Nacional de Control de Drogas – DNCD) had seized almost 17 tons of cocaine. Just over 7.6 tons of that came in April alone, when authorities made five separate seizures in the Port of Caucedo. In the largest haul that month, just under 1.2 tons of cocaine were confiscated from a container on its way to Rotterdam. This was not business as usual. April’s seizures were higher than the total of all seizures made in 2018 and 2019.
Caucedo is by far the single biggest point of cocaine confiscation in the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, shipments seized out at sea or on uninhabited beaches where cocaine is brought ashore are usually on their way to Caucedo, to be temporarily stashed or to be moved on again in another container ship.
Right Place, Wrong Time
Part of Caucedo’s appeal for traffickers is tied to the Dominican Republic’s strategic location between South American producer nations, the ever-lucrative United States, and the increasingly popular European markets.
Apart from cocaine shipped directly to Caucedo in container vessels, the drugs can be brought onto the island’s shores by go-fast boats and fishing vessels. Colombia and Venezuela are only about a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) away. The crews, so-called transportistas, are often a mix of Dominicans, Venezuelans, and Colombians.
In some cases, authorities tipped off to arriving boats end up confronting traffickers in forested areas or communities close to shore, suggesting the traffickers are quick to move off the open beaches.
While there are few seizures made on the highways and roads connecting the Dominican Republic’s remote beaches with its international ports, drugs certainly move along them, according to evidence in a 2022 Italian Anti-Drug Directorate Report.
The report details how authorities have traced the journey of specific drug packages through the Dominican Republic by tracking the distinctive stamps traffickers use to identify the multiple drug bundles within large shipments.
In one case, authorities were able to connect two parts of a single shipment, separated after a partial seizure at sea, by matching the stamps at a later date. They realized that the unintercepted part of the shipment had been smuggled into the port on the very same day.
In another case, authorities used stamps to match an unidentified batch of drugs moving through the port’s customs to another batch confiscated days earlier, suggesting it had been temporarily stashed.
Significant quantities are also regularly seized from commercial and private flights, and most US-bound cocaine is sent by sea from the Dominican Republic’s eastern coast across the Mona Channel to Puerto Rico.
Caucedo – The Gateway to Europe
As the Dominican Republic’s major port, Caucedo stands out as a hotspot for drug shipments leaving the country for Europe.
In January, Dominican anti-narcotics agents at Caucedo made one of the country’s largest cocaine seizures after they discovered 1.2 tons, hidden inside a shipment of bananas. The container was in transit from Guatemala to Belgium, a fact that authorities said complicated their investigation.
Drug shipments intercepted in containers at a transit point can be contaminated at several sites along their journey, including at their point of origin, the transit country, or somewhere in between, Alberto Arean Varela, Caribbean coordinator for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) Container Control Program, told InSight Crime.
The shipment seized in January “could have come from Guatemala or it could have been moved from one container to another within the port. Or it could have been smuggled into Caucedo by truck,” he said.
Trucks have recently been used to move cocaine within the port. One attempt to do so in March of this year ended in gunfire when anti-narcotics authorities surprised a group of Caucedo port employees and truckers in the process of moving cocaine from a container onto a truck. Realizing they had been caught, the criminals shot at authorities and fled to nearby woods.
The group was most likely using a sophisticated and increasingly popular method of cocaine concealment called “in and out.” Unlike the well-known “rip-on/rip-off” method, in which traffickers open the containers and add cocaine to existing cargo, traffickers using the “in and out” remove their cocaine from the port after its arrival and store the drugs in modified containers outside of the port. Later, traffickers reintroduce the cocaine to the port inside the modified containers with the help of complicit truck drivers.
Cat and Mouse
Caucedo port authorities admit that drugs get through and shipments are contaminated in spite of strong security measures. Port authorities told InSight Crime that they have spent millions of dollars on updating the port’s security and associated protocols. Increased drug seizures in 2021 led to the port of Caucedo being certified under the US Container Security Initiative and the Dominican Republic receiving public recognition from the US State Department for its “political will to reduce the flow of drugs into the country.”
But drug traffickers have managed to stay ahead at every turn.
“What we are seeing now is that drug traffickers are more creative,” a former port administrator told InSight Crime. For example, criminals have made rapid advances in cloning the single-use, heavy-duty seals that secure containers before they embark on each leg of their journey. Traffickers fake these seals when using the “rip-on/rip-off” method. Cloning a seal requires that drug traffickers have access to shipping documents and then gain access to the containers themselves. These steps almost always require the assistance of a corrupt port employee.
“When I started in 2010, cloning seals was unusual in the country. But now a seal can be cloned in less than one hour,” the former Caucedo administrator told InSight Crime.
Corruption of Port Personnel
It’s not infrequent for Caucedo employees to be linked to seizures. In January 2022, five Caucedo employees were arrested after authorities found 246 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the bottom of a container loaded with cacao destined for France.
Experts who spoke to InSight Crime confirmed that Caucedo is highly vulnerable to staff corruption, amid other security challenges.
“I’m not massively impressed with the X-ray machines in Caucedo,” a senior law enforcement official told InSight Crime. “It is not the most modern equipment on the market. And besides, who’s checking the X-ray images of containers for drugs? How vulnerable are they?”
DNCD officers, such as those checking X-rays at Caucedo, are paid an average of $450 a month. And while initiatives to raise public security force salaries are gaining momentum, low pay remains a glaring vulnerability. Drug traffickers have deep pockets and can pay far more than a month’s wage to corrupt officers.
“You’re not even being asked to do something active. You are [sometimes] being offered $10,000 to go to the bathroom for three minutes, at the right moment,” Arean Varela told InSight Crime.
“You need corruption to get the drugs off the container in Europe too,” he added, pointing to similar corruption challenges in other ports.
The other challenge is Caucedo’s desire to be seen as an ultra-modern port that makes constant efficiency gains. Caucedo is in competition with the Port of Kingston in Jamaica for the title of the Caribbean’s leading maritime trading hub. To win that renown, it must handle more containers more quickly. But like other global ports, Caucedo cannot afford to scan every container passing through its docks.
“Everyone wants to facilitate trade. Stopping containers is not seen as a good thing. At some stage, though, we need to have a balance,” concluded Arean Varela.
In response, a spokesperson for Caucedo said the port has maintained high-security standards and has worked with authorities to prevent illegal activities, but declined to discuss specifics, citing security and reputational concerns.
Recent seizures speak to Caucedo officials’ efforts. But like almost every other port in the world, authorities there are being outsmarted by the cunning of criminal networks.
*This story is the first in a three-part investigation looking at how the Dominican Republic became a crossroads for the transnational cocaine trade between North America, South America, and Europe, involving local kingpins, international drug traffickers, and venal politicians. Read the full investigation here.
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