A top U.S. State Department official said Tuesday that drug traffickers may return to old Caribbean smuggling routes as law enforcement pressure builds against them in Mexico and Central America.
William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, said the Caribbean routes used to ship cocaine and other drugs in the 1970s and 1980s are the most logical for traffickers. Those routes led most often to South Florida but also to other Southern U.S. states.
"I do not see it right now, but simple logic and common sense tells you that you probably are going to see it in the next two or three years," Brownfield said in an interview. "They are going to look for alternative routes."
Right now less than 3 percent of cocaine and other illegal drugs is smuggled into the U.S. through ocean routes, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Traffickers most commonly bring the drugs produced in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and elsewhere north through Central America, or off its coasts, into Mexico and then over land into the U.S.
But Brownfield said the cartels are "in the process of being chased out of Mexico" and are beginning to eye Central American countries as an alternative base of operations. And that, he said, would make the Caribbean once again a more attractive option than moving drugs through South America or up the eastern Pacific coast.
Brownfield was in Miami this week for meetings at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters between U.S. ambassadors in Latin America and their counterparts at the State Department in Washington. Among the topics being discussed are regional security plans for both Central America and the Caribbean aimed at disrupting criminal organizations, securing borders and increasing cooperation.
Attacking drug organizations takes a comprehensive approach, said Brownfield, who was previously ambassador to both Colombia and Venezuela.
"You cannot just do eradication, just do interdiction, just to laboratory takedowns ... You must address all aspects of the problem, and we cannot do it alone," he said.
One emerging threat is the increasing use of submarines and semi-submersible vessels to transport large amounts of cocaine up the Central American coastline. The Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier this year detected a true submarine in the Caribbean near the Honduras-Nicaragua border that sank but had more than seven tons of cocaine aboard.
"The first ones looked like something kids would put together in the backyard. Now what we are seeing is pretty sophisticated stuff," Brownfield said. "I don't see this yet as a crisis, because we don't see the numbers. But it is their ability to transport anything that should cause us some concern."
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