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Caribbean re-emerges as a drug corridor

The Caribbean is becoming an increasingly dangerous way station for drug traffickers.

Police in Panama City, Panama, search three young men who appeared to be exchanging money and drugs. (Nadja Drost/GlobalPost)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Five Dominicans killed for knowing too much about a drug lord. Spiking murder rates in Puerto Rico. Shootings in the normally paradise-like islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Long before Kingston, Jamaica, erupted in violence last week, the Caribbean was already becoming an increasingly dangerous way station for drug traffickers.

With the United States and Mexico working to tighten their border, which is the preferred drug trafficking route, the Caribbean is “re-emerging as a corridor” for South American drugs to get to the U.S., said Dominican security expert Lilian Bobea.

“It was out the picture for a few years,” Bobea said. “Now, cartels are looking for more routes and that’s leading to a kind of revival of drug-related conflict in the Caribbean.”

The Obama administration has taken notice, pledging $45 million to combat drug trafficking under the recently launched Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. The initiative seeks to control "spillover" from the Mexican and Central American trafficking channels.

Last year, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Caribbean Julissa Reynoso told a House committee that drug “traffickers will continue to expand operations throughout the region by exploiting these vulnerable transit routes, undermining local governments.”

Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez confirmed Reynoso’s fears last month, saying the region was “overwhelmed. … In recent years, the region has been threatened by the increase of drug trafficking, violence and organized crime.”

That threat came into sharp relief last week when police tried to capture alleged drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke in his stronghold neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens in west Kingston, Jamaica’s capital.

Coke faces extradition to the U.S., where he would face drug trafficking and arms dealing charges. Jamaican media describe him as a politically connected “don,” whose generosity in Tivoli Gardens has made him something of a messiah for many residents.

When police came to arrest Coke on the weekend of May 22, armed gangs retaliated, attacking police and blocking streets. By week’s end, 74 were dead and 500 others had been arrested.

Coke, leader of the “Shower Posse,” which got its name from showering rivals with bullets during 1980s cocaine wars, was not captured. Jamaican media reported he escaped.

Whatever the outcome for Coke, the violence in Kingston illustrates the power drug traffickers can wield.

“The key thing [in the Jamaica situation] is the connection between the Shower Posse and political officials,” said Desmond Arias, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor who writes frequently on security in Jamaica. Coke, who describes himself as a businessman, received numerous government contracts. The Tivoli Gardens neighborhood he controls is represented in Parliament by Prime Minister Bruce Golding.

Golding refused to extradite Coke for about nine months before ordering his arrest last week amid mounting pressure. But he has denied any links to Coke and his gang.