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Caribbean re-emerges as a drug corridor

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

Still, Coke’s strength in his community was on full display last week. And officials warn that an increase in drug shipments through the region could further strengthen drug lords and lead to more conflicts.

Throughout the region “those violent entities have become more and more embedded into society and the institutions,” Bobea said.

In the Dominican Republic, another alleged drug boss, Jose Figueroa Agosto, has been on the run for months. He’s wanted on drug trafficking charges. Since he went into hiding, five associates, who police believe knew something about Figueroa’s drug operations, have been killed. The most recent murder occurred in broad daylight in mid-May when the owner of a popular Santo Domingo cafe was killed in the business’s parking lot.

In Puerto Rico, officials believe a rise in drug-related crimes accounted for its high death toll in 2009, when 890 people were killed, the third-worst year on record.

Even in the tiny island of Nevis, police said that the drug trade accounts for 20 percent of crime.

Dominican President Fernandez has blamed the U.S. for not doing enough to cut consumption of illegal drugs and supplyies of arms.

In a December Congressional hearing, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) echoed that sentiment, saying 90 percent of illegal arms confiscated in Jamaica come from the U.S. “I have been increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of U.S. counternarcotics efforts in the Americas,” he said, according to a transcript. “We must increase efforts to reduce demand here.”

Washington’s main response is the recently launched Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. At talks Thursday, State Department officials said Washington knows it must also reduce domestic demand to limit the flow of illicit drugs to the U.S.

Cartels still transport about 75 percent of U.S.-bound drugs through Central America and Mexico. But officials say maritime routes may again become attractive.

Last month, for example, Colombian authorities arrested 20 members of a smuggling ring suspected of trafficking 30 tons of coke to the U.S. each month, mostly through high-speed boats and small submarines that traversed the Caribbean.

Only time will tell if the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative is successful.

Arias said he hopes it will be successful, but doubts it can address the core problems in countries like Jamaica. “The entire project devotes less than $4 million for the whole Caribbean to rule of law initiatives — most of the money appears to go to training and military aid,” he said. “The problem though isn’t training or a lack of resources, it is a lack of efficacy on the part of the Jamaican state in combating organized crime.”