SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest drug-smuggling organization, is working with Dominican criminal groups to establish a Caribbean trafficking route, Dominican and US officials said.
In recent months, Dominican officials have blamed the Mexican group for a handful of murders and stealing a corporate jet under the cloak of early-morning darkness from an airport here. The jet, which was later recovered in Venezuela, was going to be used to transport cocaine from South America, officials said.
The Sinaloa presence was confirmed when authorities, working with the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA, arrested a Mexican national and confessed Sinaloa member. During interrogation, Luis Fernando Bertolucci Castillo admitted to having a direct line to reputed cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. He was later extradited to the US to face drug charges late last year.
“The Sinaloa cartel is seeking to create a route to Europe using the Dominican Republic,” Dominican Ambassador to the US Anibal de Castro said this month, citing Bertolucci’s statement. That marked the government’s first public acknowledgement of the group’s presence.
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The cartel members are also seeking logistical support from Dominicans, according to a member of the Dominican National Direcorate for Drug Control, a branch of the military that combats trafficking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
That includes relying on Dominicans to provide them with small planes for drug flights from the southern Venezuelan state of Apure, as well as obtaining precursors to synthetic drugs such as amphetamines used for crystal meth, the source said.
So far, the group’s presence appears limited to small cells. However, Sinaloa’s mere existence adds a level of complexity to a country already struggling with a handful of international criminal groups. It also suggests cartels are examining the Caribbean as a supplement to the preferred Central America-Mexico route — a shift US officials have feared.
The Obama administration has warned that the drug war in Mexico would push cartels to increasingly run drugs through the Caribbean. The islands were the preferred routes for notorious kingpins like Pablo Escobar in the 1980s until a US crackdown pushed the trade toward Mexico.
The DEA and officials in the State Department believe Mexican cartels are looking to gain greater control of turf outside the Central America and Mexico corridor, which receive the bulk of US focus and financial support.
“The handwriting is on the wall. We can see the train. It is coming down the tracks. They will return” to the Caribbean, Assistant Secretary of State William R. Brownfield told a US Senate subcommittee in November. “We know we’re going to have to deal with this crisis again. It is in our interest, in fact it would be the height of folly and stupidity for us, not to prepare for it now and in advance.”
Yet, funding for the chief US program to combat drug trafficking in the region, the Caribbean Security Basin Initiative, dropped to $73 million in the current fiscal year from $77 million last year. By comparison, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton pledged $300 million in funding to Central American countries during a conference last year in Guatemala.
Officials across the Caribbean say they lack the money and training necessary to combat an increase in the drug trade. Some 10 percent of the cocaine bound for the US passes through the islands, with the vast majority still traveling through Central America and Mexico, according to estimates.
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Traffickers largely utilize go-fast boats, capable of carrying more than 4,000 pounds of cocaine, to transport drugs.
However, throughout the Caribbean, other, more inventive methods are on the rise, according to the DEA.
Among them, traffickers attach “torpedo-shaped tubes or metal boxes” full of cocaine, heroin, or other drugs to the underside of cargo ships. Divers are sent to retrieve the drugs once the ships arrive.
The Dominican Republic has long been central to the Caribbean drug trade. Some estimates have found 7 percent of cocaine bound for the US and 11 percent of cocaine bound for Europe is shipped through the island of Hispaniola, shared by the DR and Haiti.
For years, drug traffickers had been bombing the island with bundles of cocaine thrown from small planes. The drugs were then taken by fast boats to Puerto Rico or elsewhere.
The Dominican military had significantly reduced the number of flights when it began deploying Brazilian-made Embraer Super Tucano turboprop aircraft last year.
Illicit drug flights from South America to the Caribbean — predominantly to the Dominican Republic — fell from 123 in 2008 to 28 in 2010, according to estimates based on US monitoring of air space supplied to GlobalPost.
The reduction in flights “has resulted in redoubled efforts by traffickers to use maritime methods such as go-fast boats, privately-owned fishing and recreational vehicles, and cargo containers,” de Castro said.
Colombians, Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans, working with Dominicans, use the maritime route to move drugs from South America to Puerto Rico, where it can easily enter the US via the eastern seaboard, or to Europe.
The Sinaloa presence adds another dimension to the government’s fight against trafficking, said Lilian Bobea, a Dominican sociologist who studies the illicit drug trade.
“The Mexican presence is still incipient, but it presents a challenge for the [anti-narcotics] authorities. They are familiar with Colombians and Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans. They don’t have experience with Mexicans,” Bobea said.
Authorities are already struggling with a spiking crime wave they say is caused by the drug trade.
In a country with a murder rate roughly three times that of the United States, officials attribute 40 percent of killings to drug-related violence. Late last year, for example, three Colombians, a Spaniard and a Venezuelan all allegedly tied to the drug trade turned up dead after a deal went bad.
And the agencies responsible for combatting trafficking have been riddled with corruption. In 2010, 134 agents from the anti-narcotics directorate were removed due to misconduct — most was related to suspected involvement with traffickers.
The Sinaloa cartel, with its notoriously violent streak and ability to corrupt, would bring a dangerous new element for Dominican authorities.
“It’s difficult to say what role they will play. But it’s clearly something to be worried about,” she said.