Pubdate: Tue, 06 Jan 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Authors: Joshua Partlow and Nick Miroff


As Narcotic Trade Shifts Toward Caribbean, More Coordination Is Possible

The river of illegal drugs rushing north through Central America and 
the Caribbean tends to avoid one conspicuous hook-shaped obstacle.

Cuba is surrounded by countries used as cartel way stations. But it 
has distinguished itself as a tough place to traffic drugs - and as 
an unlikely behind-the-scenes partner with its decades-long rival, 
the United States.

While the U.S. and Cuban governments have squared off over politics 
and the American economic embargo for generations, they have also 
quietly cooperated on drug-enforcement issues, passing information on 
movements of suspected drug boats through the Caribbean. As relations 
may be warming between the United States and Cuba, and Latin American 
drug flows to the United States are shifting away from Mexico and 
toward the Caribbean, the narcotics issue could be a source of 
further cooperation between the two countries.

The drug trade is "starting to move back into the Caribbean, and I 
think that is a call to arms. We need to work with the Cubans in a 
far greater capacity," said Mike Vigil, a former director of 
international operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration 
who also served as a special agent in charge of the Caribbean. "It's 
insanity not to do so."

In the eyes of U.S. counternarcotics officials, many of America's 
closest neighbors regularly receive failing grades for their efforts 
to stop the drug trade. Mexico, where 100,000 people have died in 
drug-related violence over the past eight years, remains "a major 
transit and source country for illicit drugs destined for the United 
States," according to a 2014 State Department report. In Jamaica, 
drug-related corruption is "entrenched" and "widespread," while in 
Guatemala, "transnational drug trafficking organizations are able to 
move drugs, precursor chemicals and bulk cash with little 
difficulty," the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report states.

But the same report offers rare praise for America's longtime 
communist foe. At a time when other Latin American nations have 
increasingly questioned the human and financial costs of the drug 
war, Cuba has emerged as one of Washington's most reliable allies in 
unwavering opposition to the decriminalization of narcotics.

"Despite its location between some of the largest exporters of 
illegal drugs in the hemisphere and the U.S. market, Cuba is not a 
major consumer, producer or transit point of illegal narcotics," the 
report states. "Traffickers typically attempt to avoid Cuba and U.S. 
counternarcotics patrol vessels and aircraft by skirting Cuba's 
territorial waters."

Pre-revolution drug use

Cuba's reputation - of omnipresent police, strict punishment for drug 
crimes and low demand from users - contrasts sharply with its 
pre-revolution heyday. Before the Castros came to power, Havana's 
nightclubs and casinos had the full range of illicit substances, and 
opium dens were a fixture of the city's once-bustling Chinatown. Soon 
after taking over in 1959, Fidel Castro and his rebel army shut down 
the casinos, imposed draconian drug laws, and sent addicts and others 
to Marxist reeducation camps for hard labor. While American hippies 
grew their hair long and indulged in pot-fueled paeans to Che 
Guevara, the real communists in Cuba came to associate recreational 
drug use with ideological deviation and other political taboos.

Even today, the mere possession of a small amount of marijuana in 
Cuba can result in a prison term. Harder drugs bring even harder time.

While small amounts of marijuana are grown in Cuban closets and the 
hidden corners of mountaintop farms, most of the drugs that reach the 
island are thought to be washed-up packages dumped by traffickers en 
route to Florida. Drug-sniffing dogs are a fixture of the baggage 
claims at Cuba's international airports. Police officers are 
ubiquitous on Havana's streets - and those are only the ones wearing 
uniforms. After decades of keeping political opponents under close 
watch, Cuba's security services have an extensive surveillance system 
that makes local drug dealing extremely risky, if not downright foolish.

"Cuba's a police state, and I don't believe the Cuban government 
wants to be a hub for drug smugglers," said Barry McCaffrey, a 
retired general who served as the White House drug czar during the 
Clinton administration and is a former commander of the U.S. 
military's Southern Command, which focuses on Latin America. "They 
saw it as a threat to their children, the work force, their economy, 
their government."

McCaffrey said there were "all sorts of direct communications" 
between the U.S. and Cuban governments during his tenure, including 
radio communication between the Coast Guard and Cuban authorities, 
although "I'm not sure we thought it was a perfect cooperation."

"I thought they believed that the drug issue was a good way to regain 
contact" with the U.S. government, he added.

In 2013, Cuban courts sanctioned 628 individuals on drug-related 
charges, 273 of whom received jail sentences ranging from six to 10 
years, according to the U.S. report. The Cubans make phone calls and 
send e-mails to U.S. authorities - sometimes including photographs - 
about suspected drug boats.

"Cuba continues to share vessel information with neighboring 
countries, including the United States, and has had increasing 
success in interdicting 'go-fast' vessels unilaterally and in 
coordination with other nations," the U.S. report states, adding that 
the Cuban government notified the U.S. Coast Guard 27 times in 2013 
about the presence of suspicious vessels in "real time."

Over the years, cooperation on drug enforcement has been strained by 
the hostile politics between the countries. The U.S. Interests 
Section in Havana has a Coast Guard attache who serves as "drug 
interdiction specialist," but it has no DEA officers.

Vicki Huddleston, the chief of mission there from 1999 to 2002, said 
that even though the Cubans would send radio messages about passing 
narcotics speedboats, U.S. policy at the time was not to answer.

"We were prohibited from saying in return, ' Thank you, we've got 
it,' " Huddleston said. "So they just kept repeating it."

Smuggling scandal

Still, a notorious drug-trafficking case remains one of the darkest 
episodes in the Castro era. In 1989, one of Cuba's highest-ranking 
military commanders, Gen. Arnoldo Ochoa, was sent to the firing squad 
along with three others snared in a drug-smuggling scandal. Stunned 
Cubans watched his trial on television, and he and other high-ranking 
military and intelligence figures were found guilty of taking bribes 
from Colombian cocaine traffickers.

The incident remains an ugly scar on the Castro legacy, marking one 
of the first times that Cubans saw the curtain pulled back on the 
shadowy dealings of supposedly infallible communist officials. But it 
was also used to send a zero-tolerance statement to anyone else in 
the government about the temptations of drug riches.

Cubans now fear that message will fade as more and more tourists 
arrive, including from the United States, potentially boosting local 
drug demand.

In a country where government officials and police survive on 
salaries of $50 a month or even less, they wonder how authorities 
will keep the corrupting powers of drug traffickers at bay once the 
Castros are gone.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom