KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Assault rifles at the ready, police in a speedboat scan the coastline as they slice through the slate-gray water, aware that the rocky shorelines and fishing villages that line parts of southern Jamaica are not always very sleepy these days.
Seizures of South American cocaine in Jamaica have doubled since last year, and that has prompted island authorities to step up their game, dispatching more patrols to locations that haven’t seen such sustained law enforcement activity in years.
“All these areas are constantly monitored for illegal contraband. We keep our ears close to the ground,” said Det. Cpl. Orville Welsh, the lead officer in the patrol boat, after his team searched a fisherman’s canoe and a village of wooden shacks for drugs and guns.
It’s not just Jamaica that’s on alert. The central Caribbean as a whole seems to be coming back into favor with transnational drug cartels, with authorities reporting sharp increases in cocaine seizures and scrambling resources to contain the apparent surge.
Long a smuggler’s paradise, the Caribbean was eclipsed by Mexico as the prime drug route to the U.S. in the 1990s when Colombian cartels retreated amid stronger enforcement off Florida. In recent years, cocaine seized in the Caribbean dropped to around 5 percent of the total found by U.S. authorities.
Activity is picking up, possibly a result of the violent drug war in Mexico and Central America. The frequency and size of cocaine seizures in the Caribbean, particularly off the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, have been steadily climbing. In the first half of the year, Caribbean seizures accounted for 14 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA says 87 tons (79 metric tons) of cocaine were seized in the Caribbean corridor in 2012, nearly double the year-earlier total. The high pace is continuing, with 44 tons (40 metric tons) seized in the first half of this year.
“I don’t think it’s just a one- or two-year blip,” said Vito Guarino, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Caribbean division.
DEA officials and others say the Caribbean surge is partly a result of efforts such as the U.S.-led Central America Regional Security Initiative, launched in January 2012, which increased enforcement in Central America, often the first stop on the export route for South American cocaine. At the same time, there was a crackdown along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Whenever those two get squeezed, the movement is toward the Caribbean,” said Ricardo Martinez, an associate police superintendent in Puerto Rico.
Islanders fear growing bloodshed and drug use. “The violence is overwhelming and it has been increasing,” said a man who would give his name only as Kike in La Perla, a slum perched above the sea in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. “Young kids who are coming up the ranks think they’re James Bond.”