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WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite its status as U.S. soil, Puerto Rico is the main Caribbean pipeline for illegal drugs heading to the U.S. mainland, officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.
``Cocaine and heroin traffickers from Colombia have transformed Puerto Rico into the largest staging area in the Caribbean for illicit drugs destined for the U.S. market,'' said Michael Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration's agent in charge in the Caribbean.
About 512 metric tons of cocaine came into the United States last year, with one-fourth of that traveling somewhere through the commonwealth's 300 miles of coastline and secluded cays, officials from the DEA, Customs Service and the Coast Guard told a Senate subcommittee.
``We have not maintained control of our own backyard,'' said Vice Admiral John Shkor, commander of the Coast Guard Atlantic Area.
The cocaine flow into Puerto Rico has increased threefold in the last two years, despite the increase in seizures by American officials, he said. And once it's in Puerto Rico - a 110-mile long island with the third-busiest seaport in North America - smugglers have fewer problems getting it to the United States because things from the island are not searched by Customs, Shkor said.
``Once it's in Puerto Rico, from a customs standpoint, it's effectively in Kansas,'' said Shkor, who plans to make the drug trade in Puerto Rico one of his main focuses this year.
The drug trade in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries like Haiti will continue to rise with U.S. border officials cracking down on the smuggling through Mexico, Vigil said. In the 80s, officials started cracking down on the Caribbean drug trade, so the drug runners moved their operations to Mexico. Now that officials have moved their forces to America's southwest borders, the smugglers are moving back to the Caribbean, he said.
``Without question, the illicit drug trade has a devastating effect not only on the United States, but also on those countries that are being used as transit points,'' said Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's criminal justice oversight subcommittee. ``Puerto Rico's murder rate, much of it drug-related, is reported to be the highest in the United States or its possessions.''
Officials estimate that 80 percent of the documented murders in Puerto Rico are drug-related, Vigil said.
Haiti also is becoming a big problem, said John Varrone, acting deputy assistant commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service's office of investigations.
``The political instability in Haiti, combined with its lack of law enforcement capabilities provides a safe haven to drug smuggling operations,'' he said. ``Haiti is clearly well positioned for traffickers to use as a path of least resistance, particularly when enforcement activity in Puerto Rico is high.''
Varrone showed the subcommittee video tapes of drug smugglers doing fly-by drops of drugs to waiting trucks and desperate boaters ramming customs boats in an unsuccessful attempt to escape capture.
Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, pointed out that Cincinnati had 464 heroin arrests in 1999, compared to 19 in 1990. He said he will push for increased funding for Customs, the Coast Guard and DEA to help stop of the flow of drugs through the Caribbean.
``The ability of our law enforcement to succeed in keeping drugs off our streets is directly linked to our ability to keep drugs from ever reaching our shores,'' he said.
On the Net: Drug Enforcement Administration: http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/
Coast Guard: http://www.uscg.mil
Customs Service: http://www.customs.ustreas.gov/