DEA Congressional Testimony
April 03, 1997

DEA Congressional Testimony

Statement by:
Thomas A. Constantine
Administrator, Drug Enforcement Administration
U.S. Department of Justice

Before the:
House Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on Crime

Regarding:
Puerto Rico and Law Enforcement Efforts in the Caribbean Region

Date:
April 3, 1997

Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.

Contents

Targeting the Syndicate Leaders

The Lure of the Caribbean

The Influence of Colombian Traffickers in the Caribbean Today

Alberto Orlandez-Gamboa

Celeste Santana

The Cost of the Cocaine Trade to Puerto Rico

Heroin: The Rising Tide

The Role of the Dominican Republic

The Southwest Border Initiative as a Model

Conclusion


Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee: I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee today on the subject of Puerto Rico and our law enforcement efforts in the Caribbean region. I would like to thank you for your interest in Puerto Rico and the surrounding Caribbean area which is being hard hit by the drug trade and related violent crime. This morning I will discuss the situation in the Caribbean and describe the nature and extent of the drug problem here.

The international drug syndicates operating throughout our hemisphere are resourceful, adaptable and extremely powerful. These syndicates have an unprecedented level of sophistication and they are far more organized and influential than any organized crime enterprise preceding them.

Traditional organized crime, operating within the United States from the turn of the century to the present time, simply cannot compare to the Colombian and Mexican organizations adversely affecting the mainland U.S. and the Caribbean area. Today's international crime syndicates have at their disposal an arsenal of technology, weapons and allies --- corrupted law enforcement and government officials --- enabling them to dominate the illegal drug market in ways we never thought possible. Today's drug syndicate leaders are able to oversee a multi-billion dollar cocaine and heroin industry which affects every aspect of American life.

These drug lords who mastermind trans-global organizations responsible for every facet of the drug trade are almost immune to conventional law enforcement strategies. Any effective program must address the threat they pose from an hemispheric posture because they control the seamless continuum of the drug trade from the jungles of South America, to the transshipment corridors in the Caribbean and Central America, to the streets of almost every city and town in America. Their army of workers is responsible for logistical support --- transporting the drugs, arranging for storage, renting a fleet of cars, cell phones and faxes to ensure the smooth operations of the syndicates. All the business decisions --- large and small --- are made from headquarters locations far away from the streets of New York, Chicago and San Juan. But as we all know, these decisions have a ripple effect, forcing us to make choices about our personal schedules, our children's schools, and where we live.

Drug smuggling and trafficking and the violence that is attendant to the drug trade became so problematic in this region that DEA opened its 20th Field Division in San Juan in November of 1995. The San Juan Field Division is now responsible for operations in the Caribbean from Jamaica to Surinam and with the enhancements from Congress in the 1997 budget, we will be able to increase our staffing in the Caribbean Field Division by 25 Special Agents this year.

The addition of these Special Agents will allow the San Juan Field Division to more effectively build criminal cases on the Colombian, Puerto Rican and Dominican groups that dominate the drug trade in the Caribbean corridor, as well as assist the Police of Puerto Rico in addressing the violent crime that so negatively impacts the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

During the hearing today, I would like to make some points which are important in our understanding of the drug trade in general, the situation in Puerto Rico, and are critical in explaining how our strategies to address the problems of drug trafficking and violence are developed.

First, if we are to be successful in our counter-narcotics efforts, we must target and arrest the leadership of these international drug syndicates.

Second, the actions of drug syndicate leaders in Colombia have a tremendous impact on the quality of life in Puerto Rico.

Third, in developing strategies to address these problems, we cannot be limited by distinctions between "source" and "transit" areas. The drug trade is a seamless continuum which envelops the hemisphere.

Targeting the Syndicate Leaders

One of the lessons that American law enforcement learned over the years, in dealing with organized crime, was the need to target and arrest the major leadership of the organization. The same holds true for the international organized crime groups operating today. It is not effective to simply target mules, or the farmers growing opium poppies or coca; it is most effective to identify and prosecute the highest echelons of the organization and the infrastructure of their U.S.- based transportation and distribution cells. Organized crime in the United States has been effectively abolished using this investigative methodology and as we recently saw in Colombia, it is effective when employed against international syndicates.

The Cali organizations relied on an immense monolithic network of compartmentalized cells of smugglers, transporters, distributors, and money launderers to provide cocaine to cities and towns throughout the United States. For the most part, Colombian surrogates represented the bosses in Cali for cocaine sales in the United States from Miami or New York, to crack gangs in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The arrest and incarceration of Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela and his confederates, who controlled the most sophisticated criminal organization in history, is indicative that this strategy is successful in dismantling international drug organizations. Dismantling these groups is never easy or without risk. The Cali group succumbed to ten years of intense investigation by U.S. law enforcement agencies and the tenacity and valor of General Rosso Serrano and the men and women of the Colombian National Police. However, it was only after a steady stream of U.S. investigations which targeted his organization through the use of Title III intercepts and imprisonment of key syndicate members that we were able to supply General Serrano with the information to collapse Rodruiguez- Orejuela's empire. Even though the Cali leadership is in jail serving ridiculously short sentences, new trafficking groups have emerged as heirs apparent to the cocaine trade.

The Lure of the Caribbean

In the 1980's, most of the cocaine entering the United States came through the Caribbean and South Florida, but an increase in interdiction assets and investigative efforts in the region caused traffickers to reroute their cocaine to Mexico. Through an agreement with crime syndicate leaders in Mexico, who received half of every cocaine shipment as payment for their smuggling services, the Cali group began moving as much as 70% of the cocaine supplied to the United States through Mexico. To address this threat along the Southwest border, the United States beefed up its efforts through initiatives such as the United States Customs Service's "Operation Hard line", an increased presence by the United States Border Patrol, and the DEA/FBI Southwest Border Initiative. Last year, we saw smuggling groups begin to turn back somewhat to the Caribbean and South Florida to move their product to U.S. markets.

The Caribbean's re-emergence as a significant trafficking area may also be in part a result of our recent successes against the Cali leaders. It is likely that the remnants of Rodriguez-Orejuela's organization, which he controls from prison, and Cali splinter groups, such as the Urdinola- Grajales and the Henao-Montoyas are still using their established connections with the criminal groups in Mexico to smuggle their cocaine to distribution groups in the United States. However, the new groups in Colombia have activated the old Caribbean smuggling routes, originally used by both the Cali and Medellin groups, to ferry drugs into the United States.

These splinter groups of young traffickers, who aspire to become the new drug billionaires are replacing the highly structured, centrally controlled business operations of the Cali leaders, with smaller, less organized operations that rely on fear and violence to expand and control their trafficking empires. They have placed an entire command and control infrastructure in the Caribbean, mostly in Puerto Rico, to control the movement of cocaine and heroin to the United States and take advantage of the many smuggling opportunities afforded by the Caribbean corridor.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are the United States' southern most points of entry, and as such, provide an excellent gateway for drugs destined for cities on the East Coast. Puerto Rico's 300-mile coastline, the vast number of isolated cays and 6 million square miles of open water between the U.S. and Colombia, make the region difficult to patrol and make it ideal for land, sea and air smuggling of drugs, weapons, illegal aliens and currency. Puerto Rico is also a significant air and sea transportation port in the Caribbean for travelers destined for the United States. It has the third busiest seaport in North America and the 14th busiest in the world. More than 75 daily commercial flights arrive in the Continental United States from Puerto Rico and it is also a major port for commercial maritime shopping. The traffickers' biggest asset is the sheer volume of the commercial trade.

Only 360 miles from Colombia's north coast and 80 miles from the east coast of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico is easily reachable by twin engine aircraft hauling payloads of 500 to 700 kilos of cocaine. Ocean-going go-fast boats make their cocaine runs in the dead of night to the southern coast of Puerto Rico, only having to stage a refueling vessel on their return trip or carry extra fuel, to be able to make the round trip in less than a day.

More importantly, Puerto Rico's commonwealth status means that once a shipment of cocaine, whether smuggled by maritime, air or commercial cargo, reaches Puerto Rico, it is never subjected to United States Customs Service inspection en route to the continental U.S.

Today, cocaine and heroin traffickers from Colombia have transformed Puerto Rico into the largest staging area in the Caribbean for smuggling Colombian cocaine and heroin into the U.S. The municipalities in the central mountain range and the south coast provide the bases of operation for the command and control functions of the Colombian syndicates. It is also important to note that except for the south coast where DEA has the Ponce Resident Office, there has heretofore been no major law enforcement presence on this part of the island. As part of the Criminal Investigative Implementation Plan, the FBI plans to place regional enforcement teams in Ponce, Aguadilla, and Fajardo.

The Influence of Colombian Traffickers in the Caribbean Today

Several organizations from Colombia have established a significant presence on the island of Puerto Rico to coordinate and monitor the flow of cocaine and heroin through the Caribbean Corridor. There has been a definitive effort on the part of these Colombian groups to franchise the smuggling and transportation operations to Puerto Rican and Dominican groups and minimize their presence in Puerto Rico. This is yet another example of the decentralization of the cocaine trade in Colombia and the Colombian's willingness to sub-contract transportation services and franchise distribution operations in the United States. This has had the effect on their organizational structure taking on a somewhat different look than that of their predecessors. Although the "cell" system and sophisticated communication equipment is still employed to ensure security and compartmentalization, they no longer exert direct control over every single phase of their distribution networks.

Alberto Orlandez-Gamboa

Orlandez-Gamboa, who is closely associated with the Urdinola-Grajales family and other major North Coast traffickers, controls his organization from Colombia and is responsible for the distribution of thousands of kilograms of cocaine in New York and New Jersey. Using multiple transportation groups to smuggle his cocaine into the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, he conceals cocaine inside shipping containers of fruits and vegetables being shipped to ports in the United States. In March, 1997, principal members of Orlandez-Gamboa's organization in Puerto Rico were arrested. Over 600 kilograms of cocaine and 3 million dollars in assets have been seized from Gamboa's cell managers in Puerto Rico.

Celeste Santana

Santana has, for the last two years, controlled a transportation group that used a cadre of criminals employed at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico to smuggle cocaine from Puerto Rico to New York. Members of Santana's organization were employed as food service workers, maintenance workers and baggage handlers, who would transfer cocaine to Santana's couriers boarding U.S.-bound flights to the New York area. Once in New York the cocaine was delivered to members of various distribution groups.

Puerto Rico is also a local distribution market that is highly profitable and competitive. As the organized drug syndicates from Colombia have done in Mexico, they are paying local Dominican and Puerto Rican transportation groups like Celeste Santana and Rivera-Rosa for their services in cocaine. This form of "payment" and the alliance that has been created between the Colombian traffickers and the transporters has caused a "spill-over effect" on the local market, dramatically driving down wholesale prices of cocaine in Puerto Rico. The per kilogram price for cocaine in Puerto Rico is lower than anywhere else in the United States. At present, the wholesale price per kilogram of cocaine remains steady at $10,000-$12,000.

The 20 percent fee charged by Dominican and Puerto Rican transportation groups gives them a competitive edge over the groups in Mexico who are still demanding 50 percent of each shipment. This incentive for Colombian traffickers to do business in the Eastern Caribbean corridor has manifested itself by larger shipments such as the 6.5 metric tons of cocaine seized from on board the Limerick in the north Caribbean during October 1996, the 1263 kilograms seized on the south coast of Puerto Rico in December and the 736 kilograms seized by the United States Coast Guard in January, 1997. As these examples illustrate, interdiction efforts are most effective when driven by intelligence.

The Cost of the Cocaine Trade to Puerto Rico

As in most locations where the cocaine trade flourishes, competition for control of the local market has resulted in an escalation of violent crime and drug-related murder. Tragically, as we have seen in Colombia, Mexico and in the United States, violence is attendant to the drug trade. Approximately 70 percent of all documented homicides in Puerto Rico are drug-related. In 1984, the number of homicides in Puerto Rico numbered 483. Homicides steadily increased until they numbered 992 in 1994, 864 in 1995, and 868 in 1996. This is compared to New York City where the homicide rate has fallen by 50% to approximately 1000 in the same time period. Puerto Rico also leads the nation in the number of reported car-jacking incidents. Over the last four years, there have been more than 8,000 armed car-jackings.

Primarily, Puerto Rican or Dominican gangs handle cocaine distribution into the local market. These gangs vary from the highly structured to the very loosely-knit family groups that control the drug market in various locations on the island. These groups are able to easily adapt to disruption in the organizational structure by merely providing immediate replacements when the need arises.

The entire Eastern Caribbean region is afflicted with a number of crime problems that are impacted by the drug trade. Illegal immigration, money laundering, public corruption, drug-related crime violence and significant levels of alien smuggling threaten to overwhelm the region. Predictably, the increase in drugs transiting Puerto Rico has increased the local availability and an accompanying rise in addiction rates. It is estimated that 20 percent of the drugs that transit the island stay here and are consumed by Puerto Ricans. Cocaine continues to be the drug of choice in Puerto Rico. Crack cocaine abuse is reaching epidemic proportions in the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands. The demand for cocaine is on the rise and local traffickers are becoming more violent in their efforts to protect their distribution territory.

Heroin: The Rising Tide

Current estimates are that the Eastern Caribbean corridor is the second most active drug trafficking route into the Western Hemisphere. Multi-thousand kilogram shipments of cocaine, and the majority of South American heroin entering the United States now transit the Caribbean and South Florida.

Just a few years ago, Southeast Asian heroin dominated the east coast, and Colombian heroin was non-existent. Today, 62% of the heroin seized in the U.S. comes from South America, up from 32% the previous year. The current Domestic Monitor Program (DMP) statistics show that 9 out of 10 heroin samples reflect a South American signature. Average purity in 1996 was 71.9 percent, while some purchases registered as high as 95.5 percent pure.

From New York to Miami, Colombian heroin is widely available, extremely pure and cheap. These traffickers have been able to establish their substantial market share through aggressive marketing techniques, such as providing free samples to new customers, forcing cocaine customers to sell heroin or have their cocaine supply cut off, and cutting the price of a kilogram of heroin almost in half, from $150,000 to $90,000.

Traffickers from Colombia have recruited an army of couriers, who conceal through body-carry or ingestion, one to two kilograms of heroin, each, into the United States on flights from Colombia and recently Curacao, through San Juan, Miami and New York. As the demand for Colombian heroin increases we have seen couriers use luggage with concealed compartment that will hold five or more kilograms of heroin move heroin into the United States. This heroin is ultimately delivered all along the east coast of the United States as far south as Orlando, Florida. The results of the surge of high quality heroin may best be seen in Orlando where there were 30 overdose deaths in 1996. The Orlando heroin-related death rate was second only to Miami in the State of Florida.. These statistics are not unique to Florida. We are seeing a dramatic rise in emergency room episodes involving heroin all along the east coast.

The Role of the Dominican Republic

The proximity to Puerto Rico, and the economic conditions in the Dominican Republic, lure an an increasingly large number of legal and illegal immigrants to Puerto Rico. Some of these Dominican groups have gained control of a number of Puerto Rico's housing projects where they utilize violence and intimidation to control the cocaine market. Some of these immigrants have virtually become "armies for hire" whose direct links to the Colombian drug organizations have changed dramatically over the course of the last few years.

In the past, the Dominicans' role in illegal drug activity was limited to being "pick up crews" and couriers who assisted the Puerto Rican smugglers in their drug smuggling ventures. Much of this has changed due to the evolution of the Dominican trafficker's in the drug trade. This new breed of Dominican trafficker functions as smuggler, transporter and wholesaler in many cities on the east coast and is able, through direct links to the Colombian drug traffickers, to dominate a significant portion of the market in major east coast cities. Smugglers from the Dominican Republic have gained a notorious reputation for their disregard of human life, and have been known to use a diversionary tactic of throwing illegal aliens overboard from a drug-carrying boat to evade a pending U.S. Coast Guard boarding, knowing that the USCG will halt their pursuit to rescue those thrown overboard.

These Dominican trafficking groups utilize wooden hulled boats with center consoles as their vessel of choice for smuggling operations. These "yolas" are low-profile which enhances the traffickers' ability to thwart radar and they have been retrofitted with plastic fuel tanks in order to extend their range. Boat crews also rely on cellular telephone communications rather than high frequency radios to further enhance their security measures.

Trafficking groups also continue to use "go-fast" boats, fishing vessels and pleasure craft to enhance their transportation capabilities. "Go-fast" boats have the ability to travel from South America to the Caribbean region in one day, carrying payloads of multi-hundred kilograms of cocaine and their high speed assists the traffickers in evading law enforcement. The other vessel types are less attractive due to the slow speed at which they are capable of traveling, although they do have the advantage of easily assimilating into the other legitimate vessel traffic in the region. Larger cargo or passenger compartments also allow the traffickers the option of constructing well-hidden secret compartments to store and transport their drugs.

The Dominican traffickers have also come into their own right in the money laundering arena. They have established a network of casas de cambio throughout the Caribbean and in New York.

The Southwest Border Initiative as a Model

The Southwest Border Initiative is a combined effort of Federal, State and local law enforcement agencies who work hand in hand with prosecutors to target organized criminal groups from Mexico and Colombia, who work on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, to import tons of cocaine into the United States. This initiative targets the communications systems of the command and control infrastructure of the international drug syndicates in an effort to identify, arrest and incarcerate the leadership of these organizations. Last year, we demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy with the arrest of 156 traffickers and the seizure of 5,600 kilograms of cocaine and 17 million dollars in an OCDETF funded operation known as Zorro II. Together with the FBI, the United States Customs Service, INS, state and local departments in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Department of Justice and the United States Attorney's Office in San Juan, we are applying the Southwest Border model in the Caribbean. This strategy has been successful whenever it has been applied. Its effectiveness has only been hampered by our ability to incarcerate the leaders of these criminal syndicates who hide in safe havens in Cali, Colombia and Sonora, Mexico. Here in Puerto Rico, many of the leaders of the transportation and smuggling groups are within our reach contrary to the problem we face in incarcerating the leaders of the organized criminal groups in Mexico and Colombia who remain at large after being repeatedly indicted in the United States. As we saw with the Mob in the United States, the Cali Syndicate in Colombia and as we are now seeing along the Southwest border, a concerted targeting of the leadership and infrastructure of these groups leads to a steady degradation of their abilities to function successfully.

Conclusion

As I look around this paradise, I see bars on the windows and doors and barbed wire on apartment patios and residents, who are forced to live inside-- prisoners in their own homes-- on an island tourists pay thousands of dollars to visit. Our goal is to assist the Commonwealth authorities in returning this island to its citizens, so they can be free to enjoy its beauty and serenity.

In April of last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation prepared an assessment report of the drug trafficking threat and related crime problems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This assessment identified a number of problem areas I have spoken about today that are significant to the success of our law enforcement efforts in the Caribbean.

The strategy that resulted from this assessment includes: the DEA and FBI forging strong working relationships with the law enforcement entities in Puerto Rico that will assist us in the identification, arrest and incarceration of the infrastructure of the foreign organized criminal groups, who ultimately control the flow of heroin and cocaine to Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States. This strategy also targets key transportation and distribution groups, who are citizens of Puerto Rico and the neighboring islands, who work to aid and abet the drug trafficking activities of the organized crime groups in Colombia. Finally, DEA will work closely with the Police Officers of Puerto Rico and the FBI to rid the neighborhoods of San Juan and other cities of those violent criminals who take away the freedoms the citizens of this country fought so hard for, not so many years ago.

The multi-agency approach to attacking these organized trafficking groups will continue to be our strongest asset in dismantling the organized criminal syndicates that control the drug trafficking trade in Puerto Rico and the Continental United States. We must continue to target the upper echelon leaders as well as incarcerate their surrogates who bring violence to our communities, as they sell this poison to our children.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee: I would like to thank you for your continued support in our drug law enforcement efforts and I will be happy to answer any questions that you might have on our efforts in the Caribbean.

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