Caribbean countries have seized record amounts of cocaine in recent months, but the roots of the region’s persistence as a key corridor for the drug stretch back half a century.
Below, InSight Crime examines the legacies of some of the most influential Caribbean kingpins who helped to shape the region’s current drug trade dynamics.
The Boom Time: 1980s and 1990s
In the 1980s, Colombian traffickers moved an estimated 15 tons of cocaine per day from South America to the United States. Understanding the value of their strategic location between the two continents, Caribbean criminals stepped in to assist in transporting the drug, building fame and fortune.
By the mid-1980s, the Caribbean’s role was paramount, with more than 75% of all cocaine seized between South America and the United States being seized in the region.
Willy Falcón and Sal Magluta
Perhaps the most prolific Caribbean traffickers of the era were Augusto Guillermo Falcón and Salvador Magluta. The Cuban-American duo established Miami as the capital of the global cocaine trade, generating massive wealth and criminality.
Starting as accomplished professional speedboat racers, Falcón and Magluta collaborated with Colombian traffickers to allegedly transfer a massive 68 metric tons of cocaine to Florida between 1975 and 1991.
After their arrest, multiple potential witnesses were killed and jurors bribed, but both traffickers eventually ended up in prison in the United States. Magluta is serving a life sentence, while Falcón’s whereabouts are unknown after he was released and deported from the US in 2017.
Today, cocaine seizures in Florida and the Bahamas — the starting point for many of the duo’s voyages — suggest the route no longer has the importance it once did for cocaine moving from South America to the US market. However, Florida and the Bahamas remain crucial hubs for lucrative organized criminal economies such as arms trafficking, money laundering, and human smuggling.
For years, Charles Miller held a tight grip on the small island of St. Kitts, using his influence and violence to traffic drugs with impunity. His reign was emblematic of the massive impact that cocaine influx can have on small Eastern Caribbean nations.
In the 1990s, he masterminded the movement of tons of Colombian cocaine into the United States through Miami using the cargo airline Amerijet. US authorities made an extradition request for Miller in 1996, but magistrates twice blocked the request. In 1998, Miller threatened to kill US students at St. Kitts’ Ross University if he was extradited. In 2000, Miller was eventually extradited to the US and sentenced to life in prison.
Today, St. Kitts and Nevis and the eastern Caribbean play a smaller role in the transnational drug trade. Still, levels of violence mirroring those of the Charles Miller era continue to define the region. Four of the five most violent countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2022 were island nations, with leaders blaming a flow of American-made guns for contributing to the brutality.
Nankissoon Boodram, alias “Dole Chadee,” was the pioneer of Trinidad and Tobago’s cocaine highway from Colombia, utilizing violence and connections with high-level Trinidadian authorities to build a criminal empire.
While the amount of cocaine trafficked by Boodram remains unclear, his influence within Trinidad and Tobago was formidable. A 1987 report into the country’s drug landscape connected Boodram with state authorities as high up as the then-chief of police. Ultimately, it wasn’t Boodram’s drug trafficking crimes that finished him; he was sentenced to death and executed in Trinidad for murder in 1994.
Today, seizures suggest that Trinidad and Tobago plays a small role in the transnational movement of cocaine. Authorities seized just 5 kilograms of cocaine in the first nine months of 2022, according to a US State Department report. However, due to its location just off the coast of Venezuela — where the cocaine trade has essentially become state-sanctioned — and its poor drug interdiction capacity, its role could be much more significant.
Beating the Crackdown: 1990s and 2000s
A string of crackdowns by US law enforcement through the 1980s and 1990s caused the Caribbean cocaine route to largely dry up. But a group of determined criminals was able to evolve. During this period, some grew beyond their role as subcontractors to become outright traffickers, buying cocaine from Colombian and Venezuelan groups to sell directly in the United States.
José Figueroa Agosto
Puerto Rican José Figueroa Agosto, alias “Junior Cápsula,” built a transnational drug trafficking empire in the Dominican Republic through solid connections to other drug traffickers and government officials, including a presidential candidate. The ability to make such connections remains a crucial feature of successful Caribbean traffickers.
Figueroa started as a low-level retail drug seller in Puerto Rico but joined the ranks of established drug traffickers in the early 1990s. He was jailed in 1993 for 209 years for murder but escaped in 1999.
Between 2005 and 2010, the organization led by Figueroa and others trafficked and distributed over 10 metric tons of cocaine and heroin. He was arrested again and given a 30-year sentence for drug trafficking charges. Figueroa was released in 2020 after serving 10 years at a correctional facility in the US state of Indiana.
As US law enforcement continued their Caribbean crackdown, Christopher Coke, alias “Dudus,” emerged as Jamaica’s most prominent trafficker.
Dudus took control of the infamous Shower Posse gang from his father in the early 1990s and proceeded to utilize its international network to traffic tons of cocaine and marijuana to the US and Canada.
Coke’s leadership style was more discrete than that of his father, at least internationally. Jamaican gangs were implicated in 1,400 murders in the US between 1985 and 1988, according to US authorities. Under Dudus, however, the Shower Possee committed much less violence, as he sought to avoid provoking US law enforcement authorities.
However, he was ultimately unsuccessful. In May 2010, US authorities sought his extradition from Jamaica. A battle between his supporters and security forces ensued, and at least 73 people were killed. He was extradited later that year.
No drug lord of comparable power has since emerged to replace Coke. Rather than large hierarchical organizations, Jamaica’s drug trafficking landscape is now run by smaller gang cells. Incessant gang fighting has seen the island’s homicide rate rise. In 2020 and 2021, Jamaica had the highest homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean.
While Jamaica continues to see large shipments of cocaine reach its shores, none of Jamaica’s present-day groups rival the international reach once enjoyed by Coke’s Shower Posse.
The Rise of the European Market: 2000s to Present
Rising cocaine demand in Europe led to a resurgence in the importance of the Caribbean cocaine route, as underlined by recent large seizures.
Peralta rose through the ranks of drug organizations headed by Florían Feliz in the 1990s and Quirino Paulino Castillo in the early 2000s. He gradually grew in power as his peers were arrested. By 2015, he was one of the main drug traffickers in the Caribbean, with Dominican Republic authorities comparing him to Mexico’s infamous Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.”
He used legitimate businesses like nightclubs to launder drug proceeds and gain access to the Dominican Republic’s business and political elites. He has been linked to former President Danilo Medina Sánchez, who admitted to having accepted campaign contributions from Peralta but denied knowing they came from illicit activities. Medina is also the godfather of one of the children of Peralta’s sister-in-law, Berlinesa Franco.
By mid-2019, US authorities designated Peralta a significant drug trafficker under the Kingpin Act. He fled to Colombia where he was arrested and extradited to Puerto Rico. In November 2022, he pleaded guilty to trafficking multiple tons of cocaine into the United States.
Tyson Quant, the leader of the No Limit Soldiers (NLS) gang, outgrew his Curaçao roots to become an independent cocaine trafficker accused of importing tons of cocaine into Europe.
Quant led the NLS’ beginning in the cocaine trade, organizing the smuggling of small quantities on flights from the Caribbean to Europe in the early 2000s. In the decade that followed, he became an international cocaine trafficker in his own right, and was allegedly part of the smuggling network of infamous Brazilian trafficker Sérgio Roberto de Carvalho, who is suspected to have moved as much as 45 tons of cocaine to Europe. Quant was arrested in Dubai in November 2020, where he remains under house arrest.
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