Drug mules in Jamaica once made a habit of exploiting weak controls on commercial flights to move cocaine into the United Kingdom before a crackdown significantly deterred such criminal activity. But a string of recent seizures has raised fears of this route's potential revitalization.
Over the course of three weeks in August, border officers at London's Gatwick international airport seized three different cocaine loads hidden on incoming flights from Jamaica, the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) announced in an August 25 press release.
Authorities uncovered the first 22-kilogram cocaine haul on August 11, which was concealed in a vegetable shipment that departed Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. The following week, another 30 kilograms of cocaine were discovered on the same route. A third seizure on another Kingston to Gatwick flight came August 25, when border officials seized three kilograms of cocaine “suspended in a liquid solution,” according to the NCA.
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The NCA explained that the seizures highlighted improved coordination between the force and border officials. However, a number of security experts consulted by InSight Crime fear the string of seizures may point to the revitalization of an historic drug trafficking route between the two nations.
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Although the Pacific is still the preferred route, in recent years the Caribbean has undergone a resurgence as a critical transit zone for transnational criminal groups trafficking cocaine loads to consumers in the United States and Europe.
Mark Shields, Jamaica’s former deputy police commissioner from 2004 to 2009, told InSight Crime he "was not surprised at all" to see the recent cocaine seizures sent to England from Jamaica via plane.
"If you do not keep the pressure on and resources are channeled elsewhere, drug traffickers using Jamaica as a transshipment point to North America or Europe is going to come back again," he said.
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Stopping the flow of Jamaican drug mules crossing the Atlantic has for years been a top priority for both governments. In 2002, officials in the UK and Jamaica launched Operation Airbridge, which posted UK police and customs agents at Jamaican airports to work alongside their counterparts to stop couriers at the source.
Prior to the operation, UK customs officials noticed they had a real problem on their hands after identifying an average of 30 drug mules per flight coming into the UK on three specific flights from Jamaica that were subjected to comprehensive searches, according to Chris Hobbs, a former police officer in London who worked for years in Jamaica as part of the anti-drug initiative between the two countries.
Operation Airbridge helped stem that flow considerably. In its first year, local media reported that the number of mules intercepted by authorities in Jamaica jumped from 82 to 216. Officials across the pond also saw results. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of drug mules from Jamaica detected at UK airports dropped from 1,000 to just three, according to British authorities.
While the agreement is ongoing and close cooperation between local and UK law enforcement in Jamaica continues, Shields said that Jamaican institutions charged with combatting international drug trafficking at the moment are “grossly under-resourced.”
"Until we can get to the stage where security forces are working closely with other agencies that have real teeth, we're going to see [drug trafficking] increase," he added. "Without the necessary resources, organized crime will flourish."
And as state resources are increasingly being utilized to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on the Caribbean island, the latest seizures have raised concerns that traffickers may now be rebuilding the cocaine trafficking bridge between the two countries back up.
“There’s always been a problem, and it's certainly been something Jamaican narcotics police and customs are well aware of," Hobbs said.
There is no shortage of local criminal gangs that might be looking to exploit this shift in focus. About 300 separate gangs operate in Jamaica, of which about 50 are very sophisticated networks operating on a large scale, according to Anthony Clayton, a security expert and professor at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies.
“Crime constantly evolves,” Clayton told InSight Crime. “There might have been less cocaine going on flights to the UK for a while, but these groups appear to be trying again now."
Corruption has likely exacerbated the problem. Jamaican officials earn dismal salaries, making it easy to get a customs or security officer to turn a blind eye, either through intimidation and threats or a simple bribe of a few thousand dollars, Clayton said.
Catching the poor, desperate people who become drug mules is of little consequence, Clayton said.
"We are chasing our tail round and round," he said, "and we always will be until we actually focus on the criminal structures in place and their networks of facilitators."