DEA Congressional Testimony
January 04, 2000


Statement by:

Statement of
Michael S. Vigil
Special Agent in Charge
San Juan Field Division
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice

Before the
House Government Reform Committee

Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to speak on behalf of the Drug Enforcement Administration regarding Puerto Rico. With your permission, I wish to submit my written statement for the record.

As you have heard from Mr. Ledwith, the Caribbean is a major transit zone for drugs entering the United States from South America. Within that area, Puerto Rico provides a particularly significant link between South America and the Continental United States. The island is singular in the opportunities it provides for traffickers, as well as the challenges it creates for law enforcement.

DRUG TRAFFICKING THROUGH PUERTO RICO:

More than ever, international drug trafficking organizations utilize Puerto Rico as a major point of entry for the transshipment of multi-ton quantities of cocaine being smuggled into the United States. Puerto Rico has become known as a 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 six million square miles of open water between the U.S. and Colombia, make the region difficult to patrol and ideal for a variety of smuggling methods.

Puerto Rico is an active Caribbean sea and air transportation thoroughfare. The island boasts the third busiest seaport in North America and fourteenth busiest in the world, as well as approximately 75 daily commercial airline flights to the Continental United States. This presents an attractive logistical opportunity for drug trafficking organizations. The sheer volume of commercial activity is the traffickers' greatest asset. Criminal organizations have utilized their financial capabilities to corrupt mechanics; longshoremen; airline employees; and ticket counter agents; as well as government officials and others, whose corrupt practices broaden the scope of the trafficking.

Not only has corruption of legitimate business become a problem on the island, but Colombian drug trafficking organizations will routinely pay local criminal transportation organizations up to 20 percent of their product (cocaine) for their services. This form of payment has acted as a catalyst for the development of a very profitable, but competitive, local distribution market. The interaction between Colombian drug traffickers and local transporters, along with the resulting distribution market, is commonly referred to as the "spill-over effect." This "spill-over effect" has resulted in an increase in violence and bloodshed within the Puerto Rican community. It is estimated that about 80 percent of all documented homicides in Puerto Rico are drug related. Law enforcement efforts are further impeded by the close-knit relationships shared by the drug trafficking organizations which have developed and fostered over the years.

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 illicit drugs destined for the U.S. market.

Once the illicit narcotics are smuggled into Puerto Rico, they are routinely stored in secluded, mountainous areas of the island until transportation to the Continental United States can be arranged. The contraband is then repackaged into smaller shipments in preparation for the move. The narcotics are smuggled out of Puerto Rico via commercial maritime vessels and on commercial airlines, either in the possession of couriers, or concealed in cargo.

PERSONNEL CHALLENGES:

The open use of the Caribbean as a narcotics transshipment center has created a public safety crisis in Puerto Rico, and DEA must assign resources to the island to address this threat. Although this is necessary, we have had continuing difficulties retaining federal law enforcement personnel in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Few personnel from the Continental United States are willing to accept a transfer to Puerto Rico, and those who do so often want to leave soon after arrival. Such quality of life issues as inadequate public services, unreliable utilities, limited accessibility of medical care, the high cost of living, an exclusionary social structure, limited availability of appropriate schools for dependent children, and the high incidence of crime have contributed to early turnover and family separations.

As a result, DEA has in place a variety of incentive packages for Special Agents, Diversion Investigators, and Intelligence Analysts relocating to Puerto Rico.

  • Relocation incentives of up to 25% of base pay (not to exceed $15,000) are tied directly to remaining in Puerto Rico.

In addition, we have:

  • a Foreign Language Bonus Program of up to 5% of base pay;
  • a Tour of Duty Office of Preference offer upon completion of the assignment;
  • Administrative leave available to find adequate housing and complete moving arrangements;
  • five year, Government funded access, in the San Juan area, to Department of Defense schools (This now includes the children of support personnel.);
  • additional Home Leave, granted upon extension of assignment;
  • Security assistance for threatened employees, ranging from home and personal automobile security systems to removal from the area;
  • a 10% Cost of Living adjustment; and
  • Department of Defense Commissary privileges for individuals on tour agreements.

While the present incentives have proven to be partial solutions, they have not increased the average length of tour in Puerto Rico beyond two years. DEA is focusing on the personnel retention issue with a variety of proposals. The non-pay related initiatives are:

  • an expanded Family Liaison program, based on the current FBI program of one specialist, to include additional staff and resources and to provide assistance to all Department of Justice employees, including DEA (This has been funded in the FY2000 Appropriation at the $500,000 level.); and

  • the provision of security systems to homes and personal vehicles of all Drug Enforcement Administration employees in Puerto Rico.

PUERTO RICO RESOURCES FY 1997-2000

Since FY 1997, DEA has increased the special agent resources to the Caribbean. In that time, a total of 47 agents have been added to the Caribbean Field Division, 36 of which are assigned to Puerto Rico. The remaining agents have been assigned to regional offices within the Caribbean Field Division, including Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Santo Domingo.

Congress has also provided $20,400,000.00 since 1997 for advanced technical, maritime, and aviation equipment (including two helicopters) to support regional operations in the Caribbean.

In our FY 2000 appropriation, DEA received an additional 17 positions (11 Special Agents) and $2.4 million for drug enforcement operations in Puerto Rico, as well as the funds to enhance quality of life issues, as noted above.

ENFORCEMENT OPERATIONS/INITIATIVES:

There are presently 74 Special Agents, constituting six enforcement groups, assigned to the Caribbean Field Division (CFD). Five groups are earmarked for specialized enforcement initiatives. They are as follows: one High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), two task forces, a money laundering group, and an airport group. Each group possesses expertise in a specific domain and fully exploits it, to thwart the traffickers.

Since no single agency has adequate resources to investigate all drug trafficking organizations in the Caribbean, each task force group pools the investigative talents of the local police departments with the federal specialists and leverage available to the Drug Enforcement Administration. This combination results in highly effective drug enforcement investigations and prosecutions.

As part of the United States, Puerto Rico serves as an entry point for drug money coming into our banking system. Whether it also serves as an exit point of the United States is not known. In addition, U.S. currency, in small denominations, is brought from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. It is declared as money coming from various casas de cambio (money exchange houses) in Santo Domingo, and once in Puerto Rico, deposited into accounts in the name of Dominican Republic casas de cambio. At this point, the proceeds are funneled back to Panama or Colombia or integrated into the economy of Puerto Rico. As such, the money laundering group focuses on these financial transactions as well as the movement of bulk shipments of small denomination U.S. currency into and out of the United States.

Since being designated as a HIDTA area in 1995, the HIDTA group has yielded substantial results in drug interdiction efforts in the region. This group has developed into a strong partnership of DEA, FBI, U.S. Postal Inspectors, INS and Puerto Rican IRS personnel, targeting mid-upper level drug trafficking organizations.

UNICORN System:

The Caribbean Field Division identified a void in drug-related intelligence and communications among the Caribbean nations. In response, the UNICORN system (Unified Caribbean On-Line Regional Network) was instituted. With this system, participating Caribbean law enforcement agencies can share photographs, data, and information concerning various targets, locations, and groups involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. The Drug Enforcement Administration loans the equipment to participating agencies and provides training to host-nation counterparts, as well as installing and implementing the system.

The UNICORN system has already reaped tremendous benefits, as exhibited in the success of Operations Columbus and Genesis. These two recent enforcement operations, planned and coordinated by the Caribbean Field Division, have severely disrupted drug trafficking organizations throughout the Caribbean region. The first, Operation Genesis, was a bi-national initiative designed to foster cooperation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Due to a mutual, long-standing mistrust, Haiti and the Dominican Republic had never before coordinated anti-drug efforts. This has effectively curtailed the ability of law enforcement agencies in the region and, in effect, bolstered the resourcefulness of the drug smuggling organizations. The second action, titled Operation Columbus, was the largest enforcement operation, to date, in the Caribbean. This endeavor was a multi-national operation, comprised of fifteen nations and their respective law enforcement agencies.

Operation Genesis:

The island of Hispañola, by virtue of its geographic proximity between the source zone countries and the United States, is frequently utilized by drug trafficking organizations. Operation Genesis was designed to respond to this situation and to foster and maintain cooperation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two countries on that island. This operation, which was conducted during November 1998, resulted in 126 arrests throughout Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Prior to Operation Genesis, Haiti and the Dominican Republic had never before coordinated their anti-drug efforts. However, the results garnered through Operation Genesis will undoubtedly assist in improving the ability to coordinate anti-drug efforts on the island of Hispañola.

The long-term objectives for Operation Genesis were to promote the exchange of information between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, facilitate the integration and coordination of Haitian and Dominican anti-drug efforts, establish a mechanism that will support the counter-drug effort, develop institutional mentoring and training, and disrupt drug trafficking operations that are being conducted on the island of Hispañola.

The operation was executed in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, using roadblocks at strategic locations and border crossing points, interdiction operations at the international airports and seaports, and United States Coast Guard maritime interdiction along the southern coast of Hispañola.

Operation Genesis resulted in unprecedented exchanges of law enforcement cooperation by both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. As a result, the Haitian National Police (HNP) assigned an officer and an analyst to the Dominican National Drug Control Agency's (DNCD) Santo Domingo office, and four (4) more HNP officers were stationed at Dominican border crossing points. DNCD officials, on the other hand, were assigned to the HNP headquarters' at Port-au-Prince, as well as several Haitian border crossing points.

The exchange of information was further expedited by the UNICORN system, which facilitated data base checks of suspicious persons and vehicles that were stopped. The information was sent to the Caribbean Field Division (CFD)/San Juan office where system checks were performed. The information was then sent back to the HNP via the UNICORN system.

Operation Columbus:

Operation Columbus was a multi-national regional effort involving the island nations of the Caribbean, in addition to Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama. The operation focused on air, land and maritime interdiction, eradication, and clandestine airstrip denial. DEA's Santo Domingo Country Office and Trinidad and Tobago Country Office served as the northern and southern command posts. The UNICORN system was used to facilitate the exchange of actionable intelligence. Operation Columbus's principle objectives were:

1. The development of a cohesive/cooperative environment among source and transit countries,
2. Disruption of drug trafficking activities,
3. The consolidation of the counterdrug efforts in the Caribbean transit zone,
4. The continued development of a comprehensive regional strategy.

Operation Columbus was planned and initiated by the CFD to severely impact the drug trafficking activities in the Caribbean and source country areas. Columbus was implemented through interdiction and eradication efforts, enforcement operations involving the use of undercover agents, confidential sources, Title III intercepts, and surveillance.

The final arrest and seizure statistics for Operation Columbus were unprecedented for this region. There were in excess of 1,290 arrests, as well as the seizure of 900 kilograms of cocaine and nine kilograms of heroin. Over 38 weapons, 26 vehicles, 27 vessels, three laboratories and one aircraft were seized. In addition, 1,097 metric tons of marijuana were eradicated.

It became evident during the course of this massive undertaking that a coordinated effort among all the respective participants was necessary. Through the diligence of all those involved, these operations struck a solid blow to the Caribbean-based trafficking groups. Clearly, concerted law enforcement efforts, such as Operations Genesis and Columbus, will significantly enhance our ability to eliminate drug trafficking organizations throughout the Caribbean region.

CONCLUSION

The transit of illegal drugs through Puerto Rico creates unique challenges to law enforcement. DEA is aggressively addressing the trafficking threat to Puerto Rico and working to improve the ability of DEA personnel assigned to the island to confront the threat.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee. I appreciate the interest you and the subcommittee have shown in DEA's drug law enforcement efforts in Puerto Rico. At this time, I will be happy to answer any questions you or the other committee members may have.

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