Puerto Rico has become a key transit point for cocaine bound for the United States thanks to increased pressure on the Mexico/US border, according to American drug officials.
Pedro Janer (pictured, second right), head of the Caribbean region for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told EFE that the agency has observed an uptick in trafficking through the Caribbean in recent months with gangs sending drugs from Colombia and Venezuela -- a key transhipment point for Colombian cocaine -- via small islands such as Antigua and Tortola, and then on to Puerto Rico.
According to Janer, from Puerto Rico the drugs are typically sent to the east coast of the US via flights or shipping containers. The island has become particularly attractive for traffickers because of the ease with which drugs can reach the US mainland and the large Puerto Rican communities in east coast states such as New York and Florida, Janer added.
Janer's assessment on the shift from using the Central America isthmus to the Caribbean follows a prediction made late last year by the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, William Brownfield.
Brownfield stated, "I do not see [the shift to Caribbean routes] right now, but simple logic and common sense tells you that you are probably going to see it in the next two to three years," as a result of increased pressure on gangs in Central America.
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The problem of an increased level of drug trade flowing through Puerto Rico led Janer to declare in September, "It's raining money and drugs here in Puerto Rico." Despite the sensationalism in the statement, it nonetheless points to the island's importance as a trafficking route north, something highlighted by the 30 percent rise in cocaine seizures in Puerto Rico from 2009 to 2010.
Janer's assessment, however, appears to be a little behind considering the fact that Caribbean leaders warned the US over two years ago that drug gangs were increasing their operations throughout the area as a result of the US-led crackdown in Central America.
Another reason gangs may be focusing on Puerto Rico -- aside from the ease of access to the US -- is the systemic corruption within the territory's police. One US Justice Department official declared the force to be "one of the worst I've seen," last September and two police chiefs have resigned within the space of a year, adding the sense of disarray. The police, though not necessarily infiltrated by criminal elements, represent only a low-level threat to gangs operating through the country.
This rise in drug trafficking has also been accompanied by increasing levels of violence. In 2011, police in Puerto Rico registered 1,136 homicides, the highest ever recorded.