Fighting drug trafficking is one of the few issues where the US and Cuba actually collaborate, albeit on a small scale, though the true extent of drug smuggling on the island remains shrouded in mystery.

At a Senate hearing on international drug trafficking this week, lawmakers voiced concerns about the potential for Cuba to become a major transit point for drugs into the US. While discussing a surge in drug smuggling through the Caribbean, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) warned that the island could turn into an important distribution platform for traffickers.

Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has presented itself as taking a tough stance on organized crime, in part in response to the fact that, under the Batista regime, the country was known as a haven for mob activity. During the latest meeting of the Communist Party Congress, President Raul Castro issued a sharp critique of corruption on the island, calling it “one of the main enemies of the revolution.” It is likely that the kind of corruption Castro was referring to relates to bribery and embezzlement rather than collusion with drug traffickers. The most recent high profile corruption case in the country, for instance, involved a former minister who was convicted of accepting bribes from a Chilean businessman.

But the country has not been immune from the international drug trade. In 1989, General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, who fought alongside Fidel Castro during the revolution, was executed along with three other military officers for their roles in a multi-million dollar cocaine smuggling ring linked to Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. Nine years later, in 1998, Colombian officials intercepted a 7.2 ton shipment of cocaine bound for Cuba. According to anonymous Colombian law enforcement authority cited by the Miami Herald at the time, the large size of the shipment suggested that the route had been used before. “No one dares to send seven tons at one blow unless they’ve tested the route,” said the official.

Since these incidents, there has been evidence to suggest that drug trafficking is on the rise on the island, fueled by a small but growing domestic market. Cuba first acknowledged the existence of this consumption in January 2003, and promised that there would be “no impunity” for anyone caught trafficking illicit substances.

Even with the resulting crackdown, the flow of drugs into the country appears to be increasing. The government recently announced that they had seized nine tons of drugs in 2011, three times more than in 2010. The majority of this was reportedly marijuana, with only a small percentage of cocaine and hashish.

The site of much of this drug traffic is the rural southeast province of Holguin. In 2005, the head of Cuba’s border security ministry told foreign press that Holguin is “the region of Cuba most affected by drug trafficking.” Since then the area has become more popular with foreign tourists, providing both an increased market for drugs and a ready supply of potential smugglers.

Ultimately, it should be noted that the amount of drugs that pass through Cuba on their way to the United States pales in comparison to the country’s Caribbean neighbors, such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. For one thing, the 50-year-old embargo makes it very difficult for drug smugglers to bring their product into the US. Additionally, drug trafficking is one of the rare issues in which Cuban and American officials cooperate. As InSight Crime has reported, the US Interests Section in Havana has a Coast Guard representative in Havana, and leaked diplomatic cables reveal a level of engagement between the official and his counterparts in the Cuban Ministry of Interior (MININT) on the issue of drug flights from Jamaica.

This cooperation seems to be having an effect on US-Cuba relations, at least as they relate to crime. While State Department officials under President Ronald Reagan publicly accused Fidel Castro of attempting to traffic drugs in order to boost the Cuban economy, the State Department’s 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) acknowledges that the Cuban authorities have made major inroads against the drug trade. In a rare note of praise for the Castro government, it notes that “Cuba’s counternarcotics efforts have prevented illegal narcotics trafficking from having a significant impact on the island.”

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