Shortly before midnight Sunday, and pursuant to a bilateral agreement with British Customs and Immigration, Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Marine Interdiction Agents onboard a marine interceptor vessel entered British Virgin Islands territorial waters and engaged in a pursuit of a suspect smuggling vessel, the Department of Homeland Security announced Monday.
During the pursuit, an occupant began firing shots at the Marine Interdiction Agents. The agents returned fire, wounding the suspect. Agents boarded the vessel and provided medical care.
The suspect was transported to a local area hospital and later pronounced dead. British Customs arrested the two additional suspects, seized the vessel and 30 bales of suspected cocaine.
The FBI, CBP Internal Affairs and British Customs and Immigration are investigating the incident.
In January, President Obama announced the release of the 2015 Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy, “a major step forwardon matters of utmost importance to the people of Puerto Rico – public health and public safety,” said the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDC).
In an effort spearheaded by ONDC, the administration “seeks to substantially reduce the threat posed by drug trafficking, transnational organized crime and associated violence to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.”
In a 2011 report to the President, ONDC concluded that both the capacity of local law enforcement and the efforts of the Federal agencies charged with public safety in Puerto Rico require a significant amount of attention from Federal and local stakeholders.
“Puerto Rico’s geographic location, with approximately 300 miles of unprotected shoreline, makes it especially vulnerable to transnational crime,” ONDC said. “Located along the Mona Passage, a heavily used shipping lane between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, the region has become an increasingly important point for drug trafficking between South America and the continental United States and Europe.”
The agency said, “Drug traffickers have long used this region as a transshipment point. Recently however, the nature of the trafficking has changed. Due to stepped-up law enforcement efforts, drug traffickers have decreased air activity and increased maritime shipping. There has also been an increase in detected maritime transport of cocaine loads to the Puerto Rico area. According to the Puerto Rico Police Department, high homicide rates can be attributed to power struggles and turf wars among violent gangs and drug trafficking organizations whose members compete to supply the demand for both illegal and diverted legal drugs. These groups frequently use intimidation, violence and murder to gain and retain control of retail drug markets.”
Continuing, ONDC said, “Cocaine is the principal drug threat and a source of associated violence throughout the Caribbean. The trafficking threat and violence is also associated with marijuana, heroin, and prescription drugs. Illicit trafficking is a highly fluid enterprise. The documented cocaine flow from the source zone to the United States via the Caribbean—including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Eastern Caribbean countries—has more than doubled in the past three years, from 38 metric tons (MT) in 2011, to 59 MT in 2012 and 91 MT in 2013, according to the interagency Consolidated Counterdrug Database. This marks the highest documented cocaine flow since 2003.”
Unlawful firearms trafficking also is a problem in the region, ONDC stated, noting that, “As drug trafficking activities increase in the region, so do related financial crimes. Trafficking organizations have displayed limited sophistication in money laundering. Rudimentary schemes to use the drug proceeds, either laundered through the financial system or transported to foreign locations, have been used in bulk-cash smuggling operations. These conditions create an environment conducive to a broad range of corruption activities.”
In response to increases in drug trafficking and related crime, federal law enforcement agencies have expanded their efforts in the region. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have devoted resources to address drug-related violent crime on the islands, and have coordinated with federal and local partners to confront this ongoing threat to public safety.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), "The geographic location of the Caribbean Islands makes them extremely vulnerable to drug trafficking. Historically, significant quantities of cocaine destined for the US transited the Caribbean. The illegal drug trade remains a menace to the public welfare and represents a serious threat to the rule of law in many Caribbean island nations."
"The principal drug threat in the Caribbean region today continues to be cocaine; however, the smuggling and abuse of heroin, marijuana, and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, otherwise known asEcstasy) are also of concern," DEA said. "In addition, the diversion, unlawful sale, and abuse of prescription drugs are a growing threat in Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands (USVI). The increasing levels of drug-related violence in Puerto Rico, the USVI and many Caribbean nations is one of the most pressing issues currently facing regional law enforcement and public officials."