A similar anxiety is expressed by a few residents of the tiny fishing village of Forum, on Jamaica’s southern coast, where the main road leads past rickety wooden shacks to a rocky shoreline lined with small boats.
“If the drugs take over, this place will never be the same. It will be bad, bad,” fisherman Oneal Burke said as he scaled fresh red snapper.
Police in Puerto Rico say about 75 percent of homicides — which hit a record of 1,135 in 2011 — are tied to drug trafficking in the U.S. territory of 3.7 million people.
In recent years, smugglers often took off by plane from Venezuela en route to Honduras or elsewhere in Central America. U.S. officials say those clandestine flights have dropped by 33 percent since 2011. Some of that slack is being picked up by speedboats racing across the Caribbean.
Angel Melendez, a Puerto Rico-based special agent for Homeland Security Investigations of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, said cocaine is increasingly trafficked in larger amounts directly north from Venezuela on boats that refuel at sea during the roughly two-day voyage. Just last week, federal authorities seized more than 1,100 kilograms (2,425 pounds) of cocaine from a speedboat off St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, just east of Puerto Rico.
“It’s a bigger risk, but it’s a bigger profit,” Melendez said.
The Dominican Republic is now the region’s biggest transit point for drugs. A U.S. military assessment projected that 6 percent of the cocaine destined for the U.S. this year will pass through the Dominican Republic alone.
In Jamaica, seizures doubled to 354 kilograms (780 pounds) in the first half of the year, according to police statistics. Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said he fears transnational criminals are funneling resources into Jamaica because they see the country as “a soft spot that can be exploited.”
But Guarino and regional anti-drug agents say they are confident that island governments and law enforcement can effectively battle smugglers with assistance. DEA figures show Caribbean drug seizures doubling from 2009 to this year, and increased seizures are perceived as a sign of progress against traffickers.
“We’re here, we’re ready, we’re focused,” Guarino said. “We know how it’s coming and so I think we’re equipped to handle it.”