DEA Congressional Testimony
June 10, 1998

Statement by:
G. Williams
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice

Before the:
House Subcommittee

Regarding:
Interdiction

Date:
June 10, 1998

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

Contents

The South American Source Zone

The Increasing Significance of the Caribbean

Puerto Rico

The Role of the Dominican Republic

Haiti: Drug trafficking Crossroads of the Caribbean

The Lure of the Bahamas

A Hemispheric Law Enforcement Response


Chairman Gilchrest and Members of the Subcommittee: I appreciate the opportunity to appear today on the subject of Drug Interdiction and Other Matters Relating to the National Drug Control Policy. My comments today will be limited to an objective assessment of the law enforcement issues involving organized criminal groups from Mexico and Colombia and drug trafficking problems associated with these groups, with specific attention on the Caribbean transit zone. This hearing is extremely timely due to increased activity in the Caribbean, and during my testimony, I will provide the Subcommittee with a full picture of how organized crime groups from Mexico and Colombia operate and affect so many aspects of life in America today.

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 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, simply cannot compare to the Colombian and Mexican trafficking organizations operating in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Today’s international crime syndicates have their disposal an arsenal of technology, weapons, and allies---which enables them to dominate the illegal drug market in ways we never thought possible. These organizational leaders oversee a multi-billion dollar industry which affects every aspect of American life.

The drug lords, in Colombia and Mexico, who mastermind transglobal operations, are responsible for all facets of the drug trade, and are almost immune to conventional law enforcement strategy. Any effective program must address the threat they pose in a hemispheric manner. The drug traffickers’ control 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 armies of workers are responsible for logistical support----transportation of shipments, arranging for storage, rental vehicles, cellular phones and fax machines---which are all used to ensure the smooth operation of the organization.

 

The South American Source Zone

The vast majority of the cocaine entering the United States continues to come from the source countries of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. Heroin produced in Colombia represented fifty-two percent of the heroin seized in the United States last year. For nearly two decades, crime groups from Colombia ruled the drug trade with an iron fist, exponentially increasing their profit margin by controlling the entire continuum of the cocaine market. Their control ranged from the coca leaf production in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, to the cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) production and processing centers in Colombia, to the wholesale distribution of cocaine on the streets of the U.S.

Colombian traffickers continue to dominate the movement of cocaine from the jungles of Bolivia and Peru to the large cocaine HCl conversion laboratories in Southern Colombia. An estimated fifteen percent of the world’s coca leaf is grown in Colombia and the vast majority of the cocaine base and cocaine HCl is produced in these laboratories throughout Colombia. Many of these activities take place in the southern rain forests and eastern lowlands of Colombia. Most of the coca cultivation in Colombia occurs in the Departments of Guaviare, Caqueta, and Putumayo. Also, cultivation occurs in areas of high insurgency that are effectively beyond the control of the Colombian Government. Cocaine conversion laboratories range from smaller "family" operations to much larger facilities, employing dozens of workers. Once the cocaine HCl is manufactured, it is either shipped via maritime or aircraft to traffickers in Mexico, or shipped through the Caribbean corridor, including the Bahamas Island Chain, to U.S. entry points in Puerto Rico, Miami, and New York.

In recent years, the Colombian traffickers have been forced to turn to Mexican trafficking groups to smuggle their product into the United States. Much of this shift occurred due to the increased law enforcement pressure in South America and the Caribbean. Initially, these Mexican trafficking organizations received payment for their services in cash, but as the alliance between the Colombian and Mexican trafficking groups continued, the Mexican smugglers began receiving payment in the form of cocaine. This served to substantially increase the Mexican traffickers profit margin and led to their virtual control of the Western half of the United States. For the first time, DEA is seeing a concerted effort on the part of the Mexican trafficking organizations to expand their operations into the lucrative East Coast markets in the U.S.

 

The Increasing Significance of the Caribbean

The Colombian trafficking organizations and influence in the Caribbean are overwhelming. The Caribbean has long been a favorite smuggling route used by the Cali and Medellin crime groups to smuggle thousands of tons of cocaine to the United States. During the late l970's and the l980's, drug lords from Medellin and Cali, Colombia established a labyrinth of smuggling routes throughout the central Caribbean, including Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamian Island chain to South Florida, using a variety of smuggling techniques to transfer their cocaine to U. S. markets. Smuggling scenarios included airdrops of 500-700 kilograms in the Bahamian Island chain and off the coast of Puerto Rico, mid-ocean boat-to-boat transfers of 500 to 2,000 kilograms, and the commercial shipment of multi-tons of cocaine through the port of Miami.

Our focus on the Calli organization’s command and control functions in the U.S. enabled us to build formidable cases against the Cali leaders, which allowed our Colombian counterparts to accomplish the almost unimaginable-- the arrest and incarceration of the entire infrastructure of the most powerful crime group in history. Although Miguel Rodriguez Orejeula and his confederates continue to direct a portion of their operations from prison they are no longer able to maintain control over this once monolithic giant. Now, independent groups of traffickers from the Northern Valle dal Cauca, and splinter groups from the Cali syndicate have risen to prominence and are responsible for huge volumes of cocaine and heroin being shipped to the United States through the Caribbean. These groups who have replaced the highly structured, centrally controlled business operations of the Cali group, tend to be smaller and less organized, however, they continue to rely on fear and violence to expand and control their trafficking empires. The exponential increase in the flow of cocaine and heroin through the region has brought a new wave of drug abuse and attendant violence to the tranquil Caribbean.

The threat we now face in the Caribbean is constantly changing. Mexican trafficking groups normally charge Colombian traffickers 50 percent of each shipment to transport their product through Mexico to the U.S. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican and Dominican groups offer the same service for as low as 20 percent. Thus, many Colombian groups, particularly those who have risen to power since the Calli syndicate’s fall, have returned to traditional smuggling routes in the Caribbean. This has resulted in larger shipments of cocaine transiting the Caribbean. Seizures of 500 to 2,000 kilograms of cocaine are now common in and around Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. As an example, in October 1996, 6.5 metric tons of cocaine was seized from the freighter Limerick, after Cuban officials searched the vessel at our request. The cocaine from the freighter was destined to be off-loaded in the Bahamas where it would be transported to the U.S. by "go-fast" boats.

On May 27, 1998, Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida seized over 4,000 pounds of cocaine from the Five Stars, in one of the largest pleasure-craft seizures in South Florida in the recent past. Over the last several months, the vessel had made stops in a number of areas throughout the Caribbean. The captain and four passengers on the vessel were also arrested. It is highly probable that this cocaine was transiting the Caribbean from Colombia.

 

Puerto Rico

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 of the United States. Puerto Rico’s 300-mile coastline, the vast number of isolated cays and 2 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. Puerto Rico has the third busiest seaport in North America and the 14th busiest in the world. The traffickers’ biggest asset is the sheer volume of the commercial trade moving through the region. More than 75 daily commercial flights arrive daily in the United States from Puerto Rico. In January, 1998, the Caribbean Division arrested two American Airline employees who were employed at the Marin International Airport. DEA seized 200 kilograms of cocaine, $36,000 in U.S. currency and two loaded handguns.

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 kilograms of cocaine. The "go-fast" boats make their round trip cocaine runs, to the southern coast of Puerto Rico, in less than a day. 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 rural areas in the central mountain range and the South Coast provide the bases of operation for the command and control functions of the Colombian syndicates.

DEA has identified the a number of organizations from Colombia that have established a significant presence on the island of Puerto Rico. The "cell" managers of these organizations coordinate and monitor the flow of cocaine and heroin through the Caribbean Corridor, with the final destination being the United States.

Transportation groups in Puerto Rico utilize a variety of methods to move cocaine from Puerto Rico to the mainland. Smuggling groups take advantage of the fact that cargo and baggage leaving Puerto Rico for the United States is not subject to mandatory USCS inspection. One frequently used method is to ship cocaine via commercial aircraft, concealed either in cargo or personal baggage. Baggage handlers easily load cargo without manifests or unaccompanied baggage onto aircraft, bound for Miami, New York, and a variety of other destinations. The cargo is ultimately off-loaded by complicit airline employees in destination cities. Containerized cargo leaving Puerto Rico via commercial freighter with sophisticated concealed compartments provides transportation groups a method to move 500 to multi-thousand kilograms of cocaine per shipment with relative low risk.

Without specific intelligence, the sheer volume of the commercial shipments and freighter traffic makes interdiction extremely difficult. The sophistication and compartmentalization of these groups lead law enforcement to rely upon the interception of criminal communications to provide critical information on specific drug shipments.

 

The Role of the Dominican Republic

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 with the evolution of the drug trade over the last three years. This new breed of Dominican trafficker functions as smuggler, transporter, and wholesaler in many U.S. cities on the East Coast. Smugglers from the Dominican Republic have gained a notorious reputation for their disregard of human life. They have been known to use a horrific 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.

Dominican transportation groups frequently 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.

These boats have also been retrofitted with plastic fuel tanks in order to extend their range. Boat crews rely on cellular telephone communications rather than high frequency radios to further enhance their security.

Trafficking groups continue to use "go-fast" boats, fishing vessels and pleasure craft to enhance their transportation capabilities. The speed of the "go-fast" boats greatly assists the traffickers in evading law enforcement. The other vessel types are less attractive due to slow speed, although they do have the advantage of easily concealing themselves among the other legitimate vessel traffic in the region.

Over the last year, criminals from the Dominican Republic have emerged as the dominant force in the mid-level cocaine and heroin trade on the East Coast of the U.S. Many new Colombian drug syndicates have sought to pull back from the Cali syndicate’s traditional modus operandi of ruling a monolithic organization by exercising complete control of the drug continuum: from the cultivation and production to wholesale marketing of both heroin and cocaine. Instead, they have chosen to franchise a significant portion of their heroin and cocaine wholesale operations. The Dominican trafficking groups, already firmly entrenched as low-level cocaine and heroin wholesalers in the larger Northeastern cities, were uniquely placed to assume a far more significant role in this multi-billion dollar business.

A mutual trafficking relationship in the drug underworld had already been established between Dominican and Colombian traffickers during hundreds of smuggling ventures in the Caribbean and through their long established relationships in New York, Newark, and Boston. Dominican groups are now a major force all along the drug trade spectrum in major East Coast cities. From Boston, Massachusetts to Charlotte, North Carolina, well organized Dominican trafficking groups are controlling and directing the sale of multi-hundred kilogram shipments of cocaine and multi-kilogram quantities of heroin for the first time. Their influence, however, has spread beyond the big city landscape into the smaller cities and towns along the East Coast.

Local police departments throughout the Northeast report that Dominican traffickers are moving into towns of 60,000 to 70,000 people, inundating them with heroin and cocaine. They are also participating in a variety of other crimes ranging from robbery to muggings, virtually creating their own crime wave.

 

Haiti: Drug trafficking Crossroads of the Caribbean

Haiti is strategically located in the Central Caribbean, occupying the Western half of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. At 27,750 square kilometers, the country is slightly larger than the state of Maryland. With the Caribbean to the south, and the open Atlantic Ocean to the north, Haiti is in an ideal position to facilitate the movement of cocaine and heroin from Colombia to the U.S. The Port-Au-Prince Country office in Haiti and the Santo Domingo Country Office in the Dominican Republic represent DEA on the island of Hispaniola. Just 80 miles from the East Coast of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico is easily accessible by plane or boat.

The island of Hispaniola is just under 430 miles from Colombia’s most northern point. Like Hispaniola, Puerto Rico is easily accessible by twin engine aircraft hauling payloads of 500 to 700 kilos of cocaine. While smuggling drugs by sea is primarily accomplished by concealment in commercial shipments, to Hispaniola, ocean-going "go-fast" boats can make their cocaine runs to the Southern Coast of Haiti and return, in less than a day. The two countries on the island, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, share similar coastal features, facilitating inter-island boat traffic.

As the case with the Dominican Republic, Haiti presents an ideal location for staging and the transshipment of drugs. There is effectively no border control between the two countries, allowing essentially unimpeded traffic back and forth. The vast amount of the South American drug traffic, which arrives in Haiti, is transported across the porous border with the Dominican Republic, and then on to Puerto Rico by Dominican transportation groups. Once the heroin and cocaine reach the Dominican Republic, Dominican groups take control over both smuggling the drugs into the U.S. and carrying out an increasing percentage of wholesale and some retail distribution along the East Coast. The Haitians have made some significant seizures recently, however, to have a maximum impact, it is critical that these seizures be used as the linchpin to build cases against key Colombian and Haitian traffickers. Once the DEA office in Port-au-Prince is fully staffed, we will continue to work closely with the Haitian National Police to build strong prosecutable cases against these traffickers.

The easy access to the Dominican Republic, and the lack of an effective legal system, has allowed Haiti to become a key link in the transportation chain. Today, cocaine and heroin traffickers from Colombia have enlisted the aid of traffickers and smugglers from the Dominican Republic to deliver their product to market and have placed an entire command and control infrastructure in the Caribbean, including Haiti, to manage the movement of cocaine throughout the Caribbean Corridor.

 

The Lure of the Bahamas

The Bahamas Island chain, which lies Northwest of the island of Hispaniola and just Northeast of Cuba, has been a center for smuggling contraband for centuries. During the heyday of the Medullin Cartel, Carlos Lehder bought an entire island, Norman’s Cay, where he flew planes laden with hundreds of kilos of cocaine to stage for entry into the United States.

The Bahamas remains a central conduit for air and maritime shipments of drugs moving through the Western and Central Caribbean to the Southeastern United States. Two recent maritime operations, resulting in the seizure of 4.3 metric tons of cocaine, are indicative of the Colombian drug lords’ return to the Caribbean. On February 20, 1998, the Honduran vessel Nicole departed Barranquilla, Colombia en route to Turks and Caicos Islands. The DEA confirmed that this vessel was originally named the Lucent Star and had been involved with the off-loading of multi-thousand kilograms of cocaine off the coast of Haiti in 1997. The subsequent search of the vessel uncovered approximately 3,700 kilograms of cocaine. DEA also developed intelligence that the Panamanian vessel Sea Star II was suspected of smuggling multi-thousand kilograms of cocaine. On February 28, 1998, this vessel docked in Freeport, Bahamas. The search of the vessel uncovered approximately 2000 kilograms of cocaine.

Overall seizures in the Bahamas for the first three months of 1998, surpass the total number of drug seizures in the Bahamas for the last three years combined.

Transportation groups located in the Bahamas utilize a variety of methods to move cocaine from the islands to the United States. Colombian traffickers air- drop shipments of cocaine off the coast of Jamaica, or utilize boat to boat transfers on open seas. Jamaican and Bahamian transportation groups then use Jamaican canoes to smuggle their payloads into the Bahamas, frequently using the territorial waters of Cuba to shield their movements. The cocaine is then transferred to pleasure craft which disappear into the inter-island boat traffic. Traffickers also use twin-engine turbo-prop aircraft, with long range capability and Global Positioning Systems, which pinpoint drop zones in the middle of the ocean. Cellular telephones are used to minimize their exposure to interdiction assets and ensure the smooth transfer of their cargo of cocaine for shipment into the United States.

DEA is very concerned about the new containerized shipping port facility in Freeport, Bahamas, which will function as a freight-forwarding point for commercial cargo being sent to various ports in the United States and Europe. The containers are not to be opened while in Freeport, however, this creates a situation ripe for opportunistic smuggling organizations to exploit. Even more disturbing are current plans to make Freeport a free zone, which will allow cargo legitimately shipped through the port to be opened and merchandise to be removed or added while in port. Miami’s port of entry, which handles hundreds of thousands of tons of commercial cargo, both through Miami International Airport and the seaport, is ideal for smuggling large shipments of cocaine into the United States. Tramp freighters, by the hundred, tour the Caribbean, going island to island, picking up and dropping off cargo. It is relatively simple for captains, with the inclination, to stop mid-ocean and take on hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and conceal them in false compartments or take on commercial cargo at ports of call with cocaine already concealed inside.

Once the cocaine arrives in Miami, the Colombian traffickers have a two decade old transportation infrastructure, who work at the air and seaports, to facilitate the off-loading and warehousing of cocaine shipments. These traffickers frequently provide transportation via tractor trailer or private vehicle to Colombian cell heads on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

To counter the threat in the Northern Caribbean, the United States Government initiated Operation Bahamas and Turks and Caicos (OPBAT) in 1982. This joint interdiction operation comprised of Bahamian law enforcement, DEA, USCS, U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense is headquartered in Nassau, Bahamas. OPBAT has had enormous success over the years, seizing thousands of kilograms of cocaine and literally driving the transportation groups formerly working for the Calli syndicate out of the Northern Caribbean.

 

A Hemispheric Law Enforcement Response

Over time, law enforcement in the U.S. has been able to counter organized crime effectively, by attacking the command and control systems of the syndicates through the use of court approved intercepts. Successful cases against the leaders of international drug trafficking groups most often originate from investigations being conducted in the United States. Through what was originally designated our Southwest Border Initiative, but has become a strategy employed throughout the hemisphere, DEA and our counterparts direct their resources against the communications systems of the command and control functions of the organized crime groups in both the Caribbean and South America. DEA’s enforcement operations in these efforts rely heavily on court-authorized electronic surveillance interception orders.

In response to the threat posed in the Caribbean, DEA has enhanced the Caribbean Field Division by 25 Special Agents. In fiscal year 1997, the Caribbean

Division arrested 652 defendants, initiated 124 criminal cases and documented over $13 million in asset seizures. In July, 1997, to disrupt the flow of drug traffic in the Caribbean, DEA initiated Operation Summer Storm and Operation Blue Skies. Both operations were coordinated with Caribbean law enforcement personnel to target air, land, and maritime smuggling networks.

Also in July, 1997, DEA formulated the Caribbean Regional Operational Plan (CROP) which combined the efforts of DEA, Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Customs Service, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This plan has a multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional approach and includes the counter-drug efforts of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Miami, the U.S. Embassy Country Teams, and the Island National Law Enforcement Agencies. The implementation of this plan completed efforts to shield the Southern border which built on the successful strategies implemented in Operation BAT, Operation GATEWAY, and the Southwest Border Initiative. In April, 1998, Operation Frontier Lance began to focus investigative resources on air and maritime smuggling throughout the Southern and Northern areas of Hispaniola in order to reduce the flow of traffic through Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

A successful counterdrug strategy must incorporate an interdiction component that receives critical, actionable intelligence. The vastness of the Caribbean Corridor, the trafficker’s use of sophisticated hidden compartments, and the sheer volume and variety of commercial cargo flowing through the Caribbean, make a meaningful interdiction program almost completely dependent on quality intelligence. Our hemispheric strategy relies upon court-ordered electronic surveillance that allows us to support interdiction agencies with quality intelligence. Over time, this strategy impairs a criminal organization’s ability to conduct business, leaving it even more vulnerable to other law enforcement strategies.

Conclusion

DEA remains committed to our primary goal of targeting and arresting the most significant drug traffickers operating in the world today. In order to meet this goal, it is essential that we have trustworthy and competent agencies in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America working side by side with us. With the assistance of our Federal, state and local partners domestically and our counterparts in foreign governments, DEA will continue to work jointly to build cases against, and ultimately incarcerate, the leaders of these sophisticated criminal syndicates that continue to distribute their poison throughout the world.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today, Mr. Chairman. I will be happy to respond to any questions you or the members of the Subcommittee may have.

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