Pubdate: Mon, 16 Feb 1998
Source: Washington Post 
Section: Front Page, page A1
Authors: Douglas Farah and Serge F. Kovaleski, Washington Post Foreign Service


Puerto Rico a Major Gateway to the U.S.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico  A shift in tactics by cocaine and heroin
traffickers has made this island territory the most important way station
of a burgeoning smuggling route through the Caribbean, according to law
enforcement officials and experts on the drug trade.

Colombian drug cartels, which produce virtually all of

the world's cocaine and an increasing amount of its heroin, have shipped
most of their U.S.-bound drugs through Mexico in recent years. While that
remains the dominant route, stepped-up interdiction efforts at the
U.S.-Mexico border  plus the ever-increasing demands of Mexican
traffickers  have led the Colombians to diversify by putting new emphasis
on the Caribbean.

The Colombian cartels have subcontracted their Caribbean smuggling to
Puerto Rico-based trafficking gangs whose leaders are from the Dominican
Republic, according to law enforcement officials. The Dominicans ship the
cocaine and heroin via islands throughout the archipelago, often using
small, fast boats that are almost certain to escape detection by law
enforcement agencies  and that can easily outrun any patrol craft that
happens to get lucky.

A given shipment of cocaine or heroin might hopscotch its way north through
several island nations, authorities say. But for the Dominican traffickers,
all roads eventually lead to Puerto Rico.

Since Puerto Rico is U.S. soil, there are no customs checks between the
island and the American mainland. The traffickers apparently consider
shipping the drugs onward to their destinations in Washington or New York
or Chicago a mere formality.

"Once the drugs are in Puerto Rico, they might as well be in Kansas," said
Felix Jimenez, special agent in charge of the Caribbean for the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration. "There are 72 flights a day from here to the
mainland, and San Juan is the busiest port in the Caribbean and the
fourth-busiest in the United States. You can put coke on a plane here and
have it in Los Angeles in less than 24 hours."

The United Nations Drug Control Program, in a report to a regional
conference held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in December,
estimated that 250 tons of cocaine destined for the U.S. market, or about
40 percent of the total, passes through the Caribbean. This is a
significant increase over estimates a year ago that about 30 percent of the
cocaine reaching the United States passed through the Caribbean.

In addition, law enforcement officials said, almost all the growing flow of
Colombian heroin now passes through Puerto Rico on its way to the lucrative
markets of the eastern seaboard of the United States.

The illicit flow of cocaine and heroin has brought with it a sharp increase
in crime and drug abuse, with National Guardsmen at times patrolling the
most drug-infested housing projects here and police sealing off whole
neighborhoods for drug sweeps. The drug trade, Gov. Pedro Rossello said in
a recent interview, "is the biggest threat that we have to the existence of
our society as we know it."

Rossello said drug trafficking "has wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico" and is
his administration's top priority. "It has poisoned our youth and injured
our capability for the future," he said. "All we want to do is raise the
resistance so that the traffic will be shifted elsewhere."

Rossello is not alone in his lament. Throughout the Caribbean, authorities
say drug trafficking has brought new social, political and economic
problems that threaten to overwhelm often fragile governments.

For example, in the Dominican Republic  the home of the major new
Caribbean traffickers  officials estimate that of a population of 8
million, at least half a million Dominicans used cocaine or marijuana last
year. Officials estimate that as much as $1 billion in illegal drug profits
was laundered through the nation's financial system last year. Of 10,000
drug cases in the past seven years, fewer than 100 have resulted in prison

Pino Arlacchi, United Nations undersecretary general for drugs and crime,
said at the Santo Domingo conference that the Caribbean was being swept up
in a global trend in which "vast sums of illicitly acquired monies allow
drug criminals to gain political and economic power and corrupt democratic

"The sad reality is that drug trafficking and abuse, as well as the
legitimation of the proceeds of criminal activity, are negatively affecting
the Caribbean in terms of health, corruption, internal security, violence,
economic development and the integrity of financial institutions," Arlacchi
said. "The corruption that exists in parts of the region helps drug
criminals to damage the Caribbean social fabric. We must avoid letting
traffickers deepen their roots. ... Poverty and the drug trade are related.
Fragile and distorted economies, poor governments and corruption are the
inevitable consequences of criminal activities.

Innovative Traffickers The drugs brought into Puerto Rico arrive largely in
low-riding "go-fast" boats, vessels that can outrun most law enforcement
boats. Using Global Positioning System devices that allow drug loads to be
located on the high seas with great ease and accuracy, several small boats
will often converge on a single large load dropped from the air or a larger
ship. If police presence is detected, the speedy boats split up and head in
different directions, virtually guaranteeing that the bulk of the shipment
will get through.

And the drug traffickers are constantly innovating. Last year they began to
use small, semi-submersible boats that could carry up to 440 pounds of
cocaine all the way from Colombia to Puerto Rico. While not operating
completely under water, the boats rode low enough to be almost covered by
the sea, making them virtually undetectable.

Traffickers also use isolated roads to land aircraft loaded with drugs. The
groups are so compartmentalized, according to knowledgeable sources, that
one group of people will be hired solely to lay out lights on the road to
show an airplane where to land. Another group will be contracted to unload
the flight, and a third to remove the lights.

"They can slip in and out virtually undetected," said one law enforcement
official. "With the technology they have, they can message each other,
coordinate a drop with great precision and move the merchandise before we
can even decode their messages. Unless we have specific intelligence, it is
virtually impossible to stop them."

In one of the largest raids ever carried out here, Puerto Rican police
arrested 1,039 people on Dec. 17 in a series of raids across the island.
The raids netted 1,356 3.5-ounce bags of cocaine; 133 small bags of heroin;
58 firearms; 60 vehicles and $205,582 in cash, according to Puerto Rican
law enforcement officials.

Using evidence gathered in the raids, the police said, they were able to
bring murder charges against 40 people, including Wess Solano Moretta,
alleged leader of one of San Juan's most powerful drug organizations.

"They [Colombian drug trafficking organizations] have persons in charge of
distribution, laundering, records and exporting," said Puerto Rico's
attorney general, Jose Fuentes Agostini. "The Colombians are operating like
a giant corporation with different levels of management and subsidiaries in
different countries. This is a business organization here, not gangs with
jackets and switch blades who are cutting each other up."

The drugs leave Puerto Rico in every imaginable way, according to law
enforcement officials. Smugglers favor cargo ship containers, but also use
commercial airline flights, cruise ships and express mail.

Between October 1996 and June 1997, a joint task force led by the Coast
Guard seized 24,000 pounds of illegal drugs on the high seas as the drug
traffickers were attempting to reach Puerto Rico, according to Adm. Robert
E. Kramek, commandant of the Coast Guard. The drugs had a street value of
$1 billion, he said.

On July 31, federal agents arrested more than a dozen people working for
Delta Air Lines. They were charged with organizing shipments of cocaine on
Delta during a three-year period. DEA officials said the alleged smuggling
ring introduced between 13,200 and 22,000 pounds of cocaine into the United
States during that time. The street value of the drugs was more than $1
billion, the DEA said. The suspects are awaiting trial.

And this fall, federal agents uncovered 7,513 pounds of cocaine in a single
container in a ship bound for the United States.

'Quiet Invasion' But while the transshipment of drugs through here is a
concern, officials and residents here say the greater devastation is caused
by the cocaine and heroin left behind as payment for the services of those
involved in the drug trade.

It is not hard to find evidence of the impact.

The windows of the guard houses at Las Margaritas housing project here in
San Juan are pocked with bullet holes. Those wishing to enter the complex,
with its bare courtyards and its graffiti-covered walls, must have their
identification checked by riot-equipped National Guardsmen brandishing M-16
rifles. Despite this military presence, residents say, gunfire still
pierces the night. Drug dealers still manage to do business.

Not far away, in a neighborhood called Barrio Figueroa, police sealed off
an area of several square blocks one recent night and then swooped in from
all sides. Rows of haggard, dazed men and women were flushed out of narrow
alleys and run-down wooden houses. Police lined them up against a cement
wall and frisked them, quickly filling a large plastic bag with crack
pipes, syringes and small bags of drugs. Other residents heckled from their
windows, asking why the cops were going after such small fry instead of the
big fish who run the drug trade.

"It's tragic to see what the quiet invasion of these drug traffickers has
done to this island. It is slowly tearing this place to shreds by creating
generations of addicts and killers with no values," said Sylvia Castillo,
27, a schoolteacher in San Juan.

"People don't look straight ahead anymore when they walk the streets around
here. They are constantly looking behind to make sure nobody mugs them or
tries to kill them," she said.

"Drugs have taken us hostage here. They have changed our way of life. I
mean, look around. Now we have to live behind gates and bars. And if you
are lucky enough you can afford to pay for an armed guard," said Manny
Mendosa, 38, an unemployed mechanic from San Juan. "I don't think
Washington has done enough for us. It is only concerned about stopping
drugs from getting to the mainland. Meanwhile, we are getting killed out

Drugs and Death Of the 868 murders in 1996 on this island of 3.7 million
people, 80 percent were directly related to drug trafficking, said Pedro
Toledo, the police superintendent. Another 10 percent of the homicides were
indirectly attributable to drug trafficking, he said. In 1986, only 30
percent of the island's murders were drug related, officials said.

Health officials here estimate there are at least 67,000 people on the
island who are drug abusers or dependent on drugs, but said the figure
could be far higher. Health officials said they had detected a rise in the
use of Colombian heroin, a huge problem because the heroin is much purer
than before. While heroin sold on the streets in the 1970s was less than 10
percent pure, it is now often close to 90 percent pure. The purity leads to
a much more immediate dependency on the drug, health workers said.

The growing trafficking and accompanying violence has forced the government
to call out the National Guard in an unprecedented step to wrest back
control of parts of the city taken over by drug runners.

Of the 180 housing projects in San Juan, 80 have been taken over by the
National Guard. The troops usually stay for periods of several months,
while metal fences are put up around the project perimeters, small police
stations built, guard houses installed and the projects generally refurbished.

Then, aside from controlling security at entry points, the National Guard
withdraws, and the job of keeping the streets safe falls to small groups of
policemen, who often patrol on bicycles.

"It helps things for a while, but not for long," said one weary senior
police officer here. "People get tired of the hassle of getting in and out.
Policemen start dating the girls in the project, and pretty soon the drug
sellers come back, not as boldly, but quietly making sales."

Peering from the metal bars over the windows of small cement bloc houses at
Las Margaritas project one day last fall, several residents warily watched
visitors, then backed away and refused to talk when approached.

"Things are bad here, you can trust no one," said an elderly woman who
declined to be interviewed or give her name. "They still sell drugs here.
Leave us alone."

Just after she closed her window, two young men wearing sunglasses and gold
chains rounded the corner, stopped and peered at a visitor.

"Those are some of the drug dealers, but we have not been able to catch
them yet," said a policeman who watched them saunter by. "They still get in
and out of here and sell dope because young people here want to buy. They
are getting bolder all the time."

Crackdown in the Barrios In November, the local government began a program
to crack down on "megapuntos" like Barrio Figueroa  areas of wholesale
sales and distribution of cocaine, crack and heroin. Most of these drug
markets are located in poor housing projects where the National Guard is
not active.

"It is important that we take back the streets, that we maintain a presence
here so the drug traffickers are not here," said Lt. Col. Adalberto
Mercado, head of the Puerto Rican anti-narcotics police.

But not everyone agrees that simply cracking down on the most obvious
drug-sale sites is a solution.

Anibal Acevedo Vila, a spokesman for the opposition Popular Democratic
Party, said the crackdowns only forced dealers to relocate from
metropolitan areas to smaller towns in the surrounding mountains.

"The government has used [the sweeps] to give the impression that it is
dealing with the drug problem, but it is not enough," Acevedo said. "They
are not dealing with supply or demand. They are just dealing with the
distribution without attacking the roots of the problem."

"First, the fact is that this is a big business, and they are not going
after the big players," Acevedo added. "On a second level they are not
dealing with the health and social problems caused by drugs here."

Drug corruption has also seeped into Puerto Rico's prison system. An August
1997 report by a court-appointed monitor recommended the U.S. government
take over the prisons because violent drug gangs virtually controlled the
penal system.

The 340-page audit, the result of a 1979 class-action lawsuit over prison
overcrowding, found that gangs had control of the incoming mail, in effect
meaning that drugs and contraband were allowed to flow into the prison
unchecked. The study concluded the "authority of the staff had been ceded
to inmate domination to a degree that was never before seen."

Puerto Rican government officials said the size of the police force has
been increased significantly over the years and that the government has
been attacking the demand problem through a number of programs. They
include an aggressive media campaign and a treatment component involving
doctors, psychologists and social workers. Furthermore, drug courts were
established in 1994 in which judges try to identify first-time nonviolent
offenders, who they may allow to receive drug treatment in lieu of full
jail terms. So far, about 600 people have been treated in this program,
usually for a period of about 18 months.

But, Gov. Rossello said, "I don't think anyone can attack the demand side
in the short run."

The real question is what can be done to significantly reduce the flow of
drugs through Puerto Rico, and the ensuing social havoc, given the island's
open shoreline, geographic location and history of centuries of involvement
in contraband of all sorts.

"These criminals have unlimited budgets, they can spend whatever they want.
But we have limited resources. It is a difficult fight," Attorney General
Fuentes said. "I use the word fight and not war because by definition a war
is supposed to end. This will be with us for a long time."

 Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company