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Puerto Rico: Back Door For Drug Trafficking in US

Officials in the US territory see a surge in smuggling after hurricane Georges.

Hundreds of small fishing boats trail wakes across the turquoise bay off this tropical port town, but scores of them carry a catch that's more than a little fishy.

In the employ of Colombian cocaine cartels, these boats are one of the latest drug-trafficking challenges to confront US law-enforcement officials - a challenge that has only intensified with the chaos wreaked last month by hurricane Georges.

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"There was a snowstorm after the hurricane," says Michael Vigil, head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Puerto Rico, referring to the latest flurry of cocaine shipments through the island. "It gave them a window of opportunity, and they're taking advantage of it."

The recent upsurge in Caribbean drug trafficking is a response, in part, to smugglers' search for points of entry other than the US-Mexico border. Moreover, say officials in this American commonwealth, Puerto Rico is not equipped to respond with a crackdown.

"We are now in a vulnerable position because a lot of our assets have been transferred to the Southwest border to fight trafficking there," says Jim Weber, FBI special agent in charge in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. "Most of our Coast Guard cutters, naval cruisers, and airplanes went to other regions. We're limited to a few US Customs planes, and the machinery is not designed for this type of surveillance."

Fajardo, cited as the entry point of 75 percent of all drugs in Puerto Rico by a 1997 Justice Department report, draws smugglers because it's home to the daily traffic of hundreds of small, wooden fishing boats, called yolas, and is the closest port to an arc of nearby, border-porous islands.

It's also home to thousands of migrants from the Dominican Republic. US authorities say Dominican gangs ferry most of the cocaine and other illicit drugs across the 77-mile Mona Passage to Puerto Rico. The Colombian cartels use Dominican smugglers because they often charge 30 percent less than their Mexican counterparts do to fulfill the role of smuggler, according to DEA reports.

In and around Puerto Rico, the DEA this year has confiscated more than 8,250 kilos of cocaine, 5,400 kilos of marijuana, and 27 kilos of heroin, the DEA's Mr. Vigil says. Officials in Washington say that represents an increase in seizures over 1997.

And the street price of cocaine in the US has plummeted from $28,000 per kilo in March 1997 to about $14,500 in October, indicating a sharp increase in supply. Officials set a record in the Caribbean last year, when they found 6,700 pounds of cocaine in a tractor-trailer.

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Smugglers often sneak their cargo into Puerto Rico aboard small fishing boats, or they dump the drugs in prearranged spots after speeding across the Caribbean on low-slung "fast" boats, which can reach Puerto Rico in as few as 18 hours from Colombia. Lately, the most effective means of smuggling are small planes, which make airdrops after flying near the ocean to evade radar, says the FBI's Mr. Weber.

He attributes the recent upsurge in Caribbean trafficking to "the balloon effect." If you push on a balloon in one place, the bulge goes elsewhere, he says.

That effect has also produced a steady rise in drug-related crime in Puerto Rico. While the number of annual homicides has fallen off since a peak of 992 in 1994, other crimes exceed the rates in the rest of the United States. Authorities say 70 percent of the homicides are drug-related.

The alluring profits of the drug trade have also enticed the island's law-enforcement officials. In September, eight local police officers were arrested on charges of using their police boat to shuttle cocaine from the small island of Vieques, just off the northeast coast near the Fajardo harbor.

Another measure of the increase in drug activity in Puerto Rico is the number of seized shipments found bound for the United States on cargo ships and the number of "mules" caught clandestinely smuggling drugs inside their bodies. Most of the drugs are destined for New York, New Jersey, and Florida, officials say.

"In the last 10 months,... there has been a substantial increase in the number of internal body carriers at airports and international cargo operations," says Ken Cates, associate special agent in charge of the island's US Customs office.

Puerto Rico, a century-old US territory that voted to become a commonwealth in 1952, has long been an attractive port of entry for drug traffickers. The 35-mile-wide island is the closest US territory to Colombia and has more than 300 miles of coastline, often desolate mangrove swamps suitable for stashing illicit goods. Moreover, there are no US Customs checks on shipments to the mainland.

In Fajardo, which was still reeling in late October with blown-out traffic lights, gnarled trees, and windswept hovels, scores of established smugglers were managing to glide across the bay unnoticed.

"These people know when there's an opportunity," Vigil says. "They don't play games."

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