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Feds Say Cocaine Trafficking Air-Drops Increasing Around Territory

Drug traffickers are dropping more cocaine and heroin into U.S. Virgin Islands territorial waters for pick-up and distribution to the U.S., shifting away from dropping it off the Dominican Republic because of heightened enforcement, according to a September U.S. Department of Justice report.

As a result, seizures between the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico increased from 2 metric tons in 2009, to 7 metric tons in the first 3 quarters of 2010, according to the report, a 2011 regional drug market analysis by the National Drug Intelligence Center within Justice.

The shift has led to an increase in violent crime in Puerto Rico, as dealers fight over turf, according to the report. The U.S. Virgin Islands also saw an increase in violent crime, specifically murders, but the record is more muddled: the territory set murder records in 2009 and 2010, but in 2011 numbers went down due entirely to a marked decline in the number of murders on St. Thomas.

Columbian and Venezuelan drug traffickers have traditionally flown aircraft from Venezuela to air-drop hundred-kilogram loads of cocaine into the waters off the southern and eastern Dominican Republic coasts. In 2008, federal law enforcement agencies joined with Dominican Republic law enforcement to step up patrols and disrupt that route, and have made a series of major seizures and arrests, according to the report.

In response, traffickers have shifted some of their cocaine air transportation routes from the Dominican Republic to the eastern Caribbean in the vicinity of the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. "Suspect noncommercial" flights from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic decreased from 2008 through 2010, while similar flights to the Virgin Islands "modestly increased," according to the report.

The Colombian and Venezuelan traffickers are able to successfully air-drop cocaine in the eastern Caribbean because of the vast area and many small islands in the vicinity of the Virgin Islands.

"Local traffickers, who typically retrieve these shipments and transport them in boats to the British Virgin Islands are often able to complete their activities before interdiction forces—which are limited in number – can pinpoint the air-drop location and respond," the report says. Once in the BVI, they say most of the cocaine goes on to the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.

The 2011 report’s description of the flow of cocaine mirrors the court testimony of convicted trafficker James Springette in the 2010 trial of Mark Gelean and Jerome Blyden, although Springette was describing events in 2001 and 2002 (See related link below).

According to Springette, planes took off from the airfield on Springette’s 2,200-acre ranch in the Venezuela hinterland and air dropped 30-kilo bails of high-grade cocaine into waters northeast of Tortola, where his associates pulled the bails onto a fishing boat and stored them on Tortola, then took them by small boat to St. Thomas.

This unchanged dynamic illustrates how the territory has been used as a transshipment point for some time, although the Justice Department report emphasizes a growing trend toward use of the BVI and U.S. Virgin Islands waters just in the past two years.

To read the U.S. Department of Justice report in .pdf click here: Drug Market Analysis 2011

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