Agents from the US Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations unit detected a vessel laden with 2,000 pounds of cocaine in the Caribbean early this year, before moving in to seize the ship, four suspects aboard it, and its cargo, which had an estimated value of $30 million.
On January 2, AMO agents on a DHC-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft spotted a go-fast boat near the Dominican Republic.
The airborne agents worked with the crew of the USS Zephyr to move in on the vessel.
The Zephyr, with a Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment onboard, intercepted the vessel, taking four people on it into custody, and seized multiple bales that tested positive for cocaine.
The operation was part of ongoing multi-agency law-enforcement efforts supporting Operation Unified Resolve and Operation Caribbean Guard.
“Air and Marine Agents engage in complex coordination to detect and stop vessels that attempt to smuggle narcotics through our coastal areas,” Johnny Morales, director of air operations at the CBP Caribbean Air and Marine branch, said in a statement.
The contraband, and the four suspects detained, were transferred to Puerto Rico, where they were taken into custody by Drug Enforcement Administration special agents.
The January 2 seizure is the latest major drug bust in the Caribbean.
In mid-November, AMO agents seized 328 pounds of cocaine worth $4.2 million from a vessel near Puerto Rico. That seizure was just a few weeks after AMO agents intercepted a small wooden vessel carrying 283 pounds of cocaine worth $3.6 million.
Between September and October last year, CBP agents recovered nearly 400 pounds of marijuana floating in the waters around the Florida Keys and eastern Florida.
“There has been a significant spike in drugs washing up on shore,” US Border Patrol Miami Sector division chief, Todd Bryant, said in mid-October. “This is at least partially attributable to improved partnerships across the state but potentially also to a shift in smuggling methods.”
The size and rate of drug seizures in the Caribbean are below peaks seen in the 1980s, when 75% of the drugs seized in transit to the US were intercepted along Caribbean routes.
But these smuggling corridors have remained in use, and recent seizures indicate traffickers have started to shift back to routes into the southeast US.
A number of US officials have warned that smuggling would eventually swing back routes through the Caribbean.
In 2014, US authorities estimated the proportion of drugs transported through the Caribbean had tripled over the previous three to five years, with the proportion of the cocaine coming to the US through the Caribbean rising from 5% of the total to 16%.
The Central America-Mexico corridor continues to be the major route for cocaine coming to the US, but the flow through it has receded for a variety of reasons.
According to the DEA, in 2015, 87% of the cocaine coming to the US moved along routes traversing Central America and Mexico, while about 13% was estimated to come through the Caribbean.
In 2016, the DEA estimated that about 76% of the cocaine known to leave South America for the US was transported through the Eastern Pacific and then, typically, through Mexico. During that year, about 23% of the cocaine headed to the US from South America transited routes in the Western and Eastern Caribbean — the latter of which includes the Lesser Antilles, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
However, the DEA notes, the Caribbean’s overall share was less than what was seen in 2014.