Drugs, weapons trafficking on the rise in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN - Federal law enforcement officials tell CBS News drug seizures and weapons trafficking are on the rise in Puerto Rico, which has been struggling with a worsening murder rate.

"It's raining money and drugs here in Puerto Rico," said Pedro Janer, Asst. Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's Caribbean division.

Janer said that in the last two to three years the DEA has seen an increase in drug seizures at airports, in shipping containers, and in the U.S. mail.

Cocaine seizures in Puerto Rico increased 30 percent, from 2,894 kilograms in 2009 to 3,765 kilograms 2010, according to federal government statistics provided to CBS News.

The efforts to crack down on drug trafficking along the U.S. and Mexico border - still considered the primary smuggling route - may be contributing to the increase in drugs passing through Puerto Rico, Janer said.

"The good work that has been done at the southwest border, it causes somewhat of a balloon effect. [The traffickers] have to go through another route," he said.

Puerto Rico's location in the Caribbean and status as a U.S. commonwealth makes it an ideal place for drug trafficking organizations to springboard drugs to the mainland United States, bypassing U.S. Customs checkpoints.

WEAPONS TRAFFICKING

CBS News has learned there has been an increase in the number of weapons being trafficked from the mainland to drug trafficking organizations in Puerto Rico by air, sea, freight, private couriers, and the U.S. mail.

In the first eight months of 2011, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service seized 85 weapons hidden in packages postmarked for Puerto Rico. In 2010, the agency seized 105 weapons - a 50 percent increase from the previous year.

In one instance, three handguns were found hidden inside a portable CD player that was double-boxed and mailed overnight to Puerto Rico from an address in Haines City, Florida.

Seized in other parcels: assault rifles, AK-47s, AR-15s, extended magazines, scopes, lasers, and armor-penetrating "cop-killer" guns.

"These types of weapons aren't for personal protection," said Delany de Leon-Colon, team leader of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "These weapons are all destined for drug trafficking organizations here in Puerto Rico."

Citing security concerns, de Leon-Colon would not reveal how the U.S.P.I.S. detects weapons in parcels, but said through their investigations they have learned that the weapons already have owners when they reach the island.

"They fly up to the states, they might visit a gun show, they purchase the weapons, and then they send them down through the mail or different couriers to the persons down here in Puerto Rico," she said.

RISING MURDER RATE

Puerto Rico's murder rate has been steadily worsening since 2007. So far this year the island has recorded 847 homicides - 140 more than at the same point last year.If the trend continues, Puerto Rico will be on track to have its deadliest year on record.

Federal law enforcement officials estimate that approximately 75 percent of the homicides in Puerto Rico are drug-related.

In 1994, the island's deadliest year, there were 995 homicides. Last year was Puerto Rico's second deadliest, with 983 homicides.

Javier Peña, Special Agent-in-Charge of the DEA's Caribbean division, told CBS News that recent arrests and deaths of drug gang leaders in Puerto Rico have created a power vacuum, with rival gangs fighting for control of territories that are now up for grabs.

"They're killing other traffickers because they're trying to take over their drug points, trying to control the market," Peña said.

While Peña said the DEA's Caribbean division is still focused on going after the large Dominican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations, he has instructed his team to focus more on the violent drug gangs operating locally, in Puerto Rico.

In the last couple of years, the violence has trickled out of the island's troubled public housing projects and into mainstream areas like malls and food courts where innocent bystanders are being killed. Some people have been gunned down while driving on major highways.

"There is no honor anymore amongst the traffickers," said Janer. "Before, there was some respect when they were looking for a rival gang member. They would wait until that person was by himself and they would make the attempt on his or her life. Now, the standing orders are: kill where you find the person."

Puerto Rico has a $3.6 billion tourism industry and the island's five million annual visitors, for the most part, have been unscathed. But it's a small island and the war between drug gangs is raging nearby.

Before sunrise on June 29th, DEA and police agents raided an oceanfront slum in Old San Juan, arresting dozens of people on drug charges as a cruise ship filled with tourists sailed by. The slum, known as La Perla, had become the heroin capital of the island. It was steps from Puerto Rico's El Morro, the island's most visited landmark.

The island's new police superintendent, Maj. Gen. Emilio Diaz-Colon - a former commander of the Puerto Rican National Guard, inherits a 17,000-officer police department plagued by incidents of corruption. The Department of Justice this month slammed Puerto Rico's police force, the second largest in the country, in a 116-page report.

Diaz-Colon took office in July, but has yet to publicly announce a plan to curb the rise in violent crime.

"I have some plans in my head," Diaz-Colon said, but he declined to reveal them because he did not want to tip off the "other side."

When asked if the island's capital city of San Juan was safe, Diaz-Colon told CBS News, "San Juan is as safe as any other large city in the mainland."

But the Puerto Rico Police Department's statistics tell a different story. While murders nationwide are down 4 percent Puerto Rico's capital city - like the island as a whole - has seen a steady rise in murders since 2007. Last year's tally of 201 murders soars above the homicide counts of other cities in the country with near-equal populations. Oakland, Calif. had 90 murders; Cleveland, Ohio had 81 murders; Miami had 68 murders; Tulsa, Okla. had 54 murders.

Even New York City, with twice Puerto Rico's population, had nearly half the number of murders as Puerto Rico had in 2010.

Like his predecessor who resigned amid the pressure of Puerto Rico's rising murder rate, Diaz-Colon is now also facing criticism over his handling of the situation from some of the island's residents.

"I think that he is living in the moon," said Maricruz Rivera, a resident of Loiza. "He can't see the numbers in front of him - his own agency's numbers - and can't connect that to the reality in Puerto Rico."

Maricruz Rivera was one of several residents who sat down with CBS News to discuss the rising violent crime on the island.

Rafael Rivera, another resident of Loiza, said, "[This violent crime] happens in the United States, but not as frequently as it's happening in Puerto Rico."

With an unemployment rate of 16 percent -- higher than any other state in the country - the gloomy economic reality in Puerto Rico may be partly to blame for the rise in crime.

"There's anxiety on the street. There's desperation," said Alana Feldman Soler, a resident of Rio Piedras. "There's a feeling that things have really taken a turn for the worse. Everybody's having a hard time making ends meet."

Maricruz Rivera added, "the young kids don't have money to buy food, they don't have money to buy books or medicine, but they have guns."

STOPPING THE SMUGGLERS

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sapelo is one of several that patrol the waters surrounding Puerto Rico's 311 miles of coastline, searching for vessels that may be smuggling migrants and drugs.

The cutter's commanding officer, Greg Isbell said, "Some of them will take off from Puerto Rico and will go link up with another boat that's delivering, do a transfer at sea, and then they will bring it back into Puerto Rico. And then you'll have some that will bring it straight in to Puerto Rico."

Once the boats get near the west coast of the island, Isbell said it's easy for them to blend in with recreational and fishing vessels. Many times, smugglers will try to reach shore under the cover of darkness.

In the middle of the night, somewhere between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) surveillance aircraft is flying 3,500 feet above one of the Caribbean's prime smuggling routes: the Mona Passage.

The DASH-8 aircraft is equipped with a radar system sensitive enough to detect patches of sea grass floating on the ocean's surface and an infrared camera powerful enough to zoom in on a suspicious vessel seven miles away. The plane flies completely dark, with its navigational lights off and every one of its window shades pulled down so it won't be spotted.

The flight crew of four flies most nights, at varying times in an effort to throw off Dominican traffickers who, the CBP agents said, likely have scouts watching CBP's runway in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.

The CBP airplane patrols with a Black Hawk helicopter and a marine unit on standby, ready if the crew comes across a suspicious vessel heading toward Puerto Rico.

"There's a lot of money involved. Millions and millions of dollars involved, so for them it's worth the risk," a CBP agent told CBS News, requesting that we not publish his name for security reasons.

Drug smugglers are also trying to bring their product in to the east coast of Puerto Rico by island-hopping the northern Lesser Antilles, including St. Martin and the Virgin Islands.

On September 2, a CBP marine unit intercepted a 20-foot vessel between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, seizing two bags containing 45 bricks of cocaine with an estimated street value of $1.2 million.

  • Kelly Cobiella

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