Michael S. Vigil
Special Agent in Charge
San Juan Field Division
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice
House Government Reform Committee
January 4, 2000
Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to speak on behalf of the
Drug Enforcement Administration regarding Puerto Rico. With your permission,
I wish to submit my written statement for the record.
As you have heard from Mr. Ledwith, the Caribbean is a major transit
zone for drugs entering the United States from South America. Within that
area, Puerto Rico provides a particularly significant link between South
America and the Continental United States. The island is singular in the
opportunities it provides for traffickers, as well as the challenges it
creates for law enforcement.
DRUG TRAFFICKING THROUGH PUERTO RICO:
More than ever, international drug trafficking organizations utilize
Puerto Rico as a major point of entry for the transshipment of multi-ton
quantities of cocaine being smuggled into the United States. Puerto Rico
has become known as a gateway for drugs destined for cities on the East
Coast of the United States. Puerto Rico's 300-mile coastline, the vast
number of isolated cays, and six million square miles of open water between
the U.S. and Colombia, make the region difficult to patrol and ideal for
a variety of smuggling methods.
Puerto Rico is an active Caribbean sea and air transportation thoroughfare.
The island boasts the third busiest seaport in North America and fourteenth
busiest in the world, as well as approximately 75 daily commercial airline
flights to the Continental United States. This presents an attractive logistical
opportunity for drug trafficking organizations. The sheer volume of commercial
activity is the traffickers' greatest asset. Criminal organizations have
utilized their financial capabilities to corrupt mechanics; longshoremen;
airline employees; and ticket counter agents; as well as government officials
and others, whose corrupt practices broaden the scope of the trafficking.
Not only has corruption of legitimate business become a problem on the
island, but Colombian drug trafficking organizations will routinely pay
local criminal transportation organizations up to 20 percent of their product
(cocaine) for their services. This form of payment has acted as a catalyst
for the development of a very profitable, but competitive, local distribution
market. The interaction between Colombian drug traffickers and local transporters,
along with the resulting distribution market, is commonly referred to as
the "spill-over effect." This "spill-over effect" has resulted in an increase
in violence and bloodshed within the Puerto Rican community. It is estimated
that about 80 percent of all documented homicides in Puerto Rico are drug
related. Law enforcement efforts are further impeded by the close-knit
relationships shared by the drug trafficking organizations which have developed
and fostered over the years.
Only 360 miles from Colombia's North Coast and 80 miles from the East
Coast of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, is easily reachable by twin
engine aircraft hauling payloads of 500 to 700 kilograms of cocaine. The
"go-fast" boats make their round trip cocaine runs to the Southern coast
of Puerto Rico in less than a day. Today, 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.
Once the illicit narcotics are smuggled into Puerto Rico, they are routinely
stored in secluded, mountainous areas of the island until transportation
to the Continental United States can be arranged. The contraband is then
repackaged into smaller shipments in preparation for the move. The narcotics
are smuggled out of Puerto Rico via commercial maritime vessels and on
commercial airlines, either in the possession of couriers, or concealed
The open use of the Caribbean as a narcotics transshipment center has
created a public safety crisis in Puerto Rico, and DEA must assign resources
to the island to address this threat. Although this is necessary, we have
had continuing difficulties retaining federal law enforcement personnel
in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Few personnel from the Continental
United States are willing to accept a transfer to Puerto Rico, and those
who do so often want to leave soon after arrival. Such quality of life
issues as inadequate public services, unreliable utilities, limited accessibility
of medical care, the high cost of living, an exclusionary social structure,
limited availability of appropriate schools for dependent children, and
the high incidence of crime have contributed to early turnover and family
As a result, DEA has in place a variety of incentive packages for Special
Agents, Diversion Investigators, and Intelligence Analysts relocating to
Since FY 1997, DEA has increased the special agent resources to the
Caribbean. In that time, a total of 47 agents have been added to the Caribbean
Field Division, 36 of which are assigned to Puerto Rico. The remaining
agents have been assigned to regional offices within the Caribbean Field
Division, including Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Santo Domingo.
Congress has also provided $20,400,000.00 since 1997 for advanced technical,
maritime, and aviation equipment (including two helicopters) to support
regional operations in the Caribbean.
In our FY 2000 appropriation, DEA received an additional 17 positions
(11 Special Agents) and $2.4 million for drug enforcement operations in
Puerto Rico, as well as the funds to enhance quality of life issues, as
There are presently 74 Special Agents, constituting six enforcement
groups, assigned to the Caribbean Field Division (CFD). Five groups are
earmarked for specialized enforcement initiatives. They are as follows:
one High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), two task forces, a money
laundering group, and an airport group. Each group possesses expertise
in a specific domain and fully exploits it, to thwart the traffickers.
Since no single agency has adequate resources to investigate all drug
trafficking organizations in the Caribbean, each task force group pools
the investigative talents of the local police departments with the federal
specialists and leverage available to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
This combination results in highly effective drug enforcement investigations
As part of the United States, Puerto Rico serves as an entry point for
drug money coming into our banking system. Whether it also serves as an
exit point of the United States is not known. In addition, U.S. currency,
in small denominations, is brought from the Dominican Republic to Puerto
Rico. It is declared as money coming from various casas de cambio (money
exchange houses) in Santo Domingo, and once in Puerto Rico, deposited into
accounts in the name of Dominican Republic casas de cambio. At this point,
the proceeds are funneled back to Panama or Colombia or integrated into
the economy of Puerto Rico. As such, the money laundering group focuses
on these financial transactions as well as the movement of bulk shipments
of small denomination U.S. currency into and out of the United States.
Since being designated as a HIDTA area in 1995, the HIDTA group has
yielded substantial results in drug interdiction efforts in the region.
This group has developed into a strong partnership of DEA, FBI, U.S. Postal
Inspectors, INS and Puerto Rican IRS personnel, targeting mid-upper level
drug trafficking organizations.
The Caribbean Field Division identified a void in drug-related intelligence
and communications among the Caribbean nations. In response, the UNICORN
system (Unified Caribbean On-Line Regional Network) was instituted. With
this system, participating Caribbean law enforcement agencies can share
photographs, data, and information concerning various targets, locations,
and groups involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. The Drug
Enforcement Administration loans the equipment to participating agencies
and provides training to host-nation counterparts, as well as installing
and implementing the system.
The UNICORN system has already reaped tremendous benefits, as exhibited
in the success of Operations Columbus and Genesis. These two recent enforcement
operations, planned and coordinated by the Caribbean Field Division, have
severely disrupted drug trafficking organizations throughout the Caribbean
region. The first, Operation Genesis, was a bi-national initiative designed
to foster cooperation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Due to
a mutual, long-standing mistrust, Haiti and the Dominican Republic had
never before coordinated anti-drug efforts. This has effectively curtailed
the ability of law enforcement agencies in the region and, in effect, bolstered
the resourcefulness of the drug smuggling organizations. The second action,
titled Operation Columbus, was the largest enforcement operation, to date,
in the Caribbean. This endeavor was a multi-national operation, comprised
of fifteen nations and their respective law enforcement agencies.
The island of Hispañola, by virtue of its geographic proximity
between the source zone countries and the United States, is frequently
utilized by drug trafficking organizations. Operation Genesis was designed
to respond to this situation and to foster and maintain cooperation between
Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two countries on that island. This
operation, which was conducted during November 1998, resulted in 126 arrests
throughout Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Prior to Operation Genesis,
Haiti and the Dominican Republic had never before coordinated their anti-drug
efforts. However, the results garnered through Operation Genesis will undoubtedly
assist in improving the ability to coordinate anti-drug efforts on the
island of Hispañola.
The long-term objectives for Operation Genesis were to promote the exchange
of information between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, facilitate the
integration and coordination of Haitian and Dominican anti-drug efforts,
establish a mechanism that will support the counter-drug effort, develop
institutional mentoring and training, and disrupt drug trafficking operations
that are being conducted on the island of Hispañola.
The operation was executed in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic,
using roadblocks at strategic locations and border crossing points, interdiction
operations at the international airports and seaports, and United States
Coast Guard maritime interdiction along the southern coast of Hispañola.
Operation Genesis resulted in unprecedented exchanges of law enforcement
cooperation by both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. As a result, the
Haitian National Police (HNP) assigned an officer and an analyst to the
Dominican National Drug Control Agency's (DNCD) Santo Domingo office, and
four (4) more HNP officers were stationed at Dominican border crossing
points. DNCD officials, on the other hand, were assigned to the HNP headquarters'
at Port-au-Prince, as well as several Haitian border crossing points.
The exchange of information was further expedited by the UNICORN system,
which facilitated data base checks of suspicious persons and vehicles that
were stopped. The information was sent to the Caribbean Field Division
(CFD)/San Juan office where system checks were performed. The information
was then sent back to the HNP via the UNICORN system.
Operation Columbus was a multi-national regional effort involving the
island nations of the Caribbean, in addition to Colombia, Venezuela, and
Panama. The operation focused on air, land and maritime interdiction, eradication,
and clandestine airstrip denial. DEA's Santo Domingo Country Office and
Trinidad and Tobago Country Office served as the northern and southern
command posts. The UNICORN system was used to facilitate the exchange of
actionable intelligence. Operation Columbus's principle objectives were:
1. The development of a cohesive/cooperative environment among source and transit countries,
2. Disruption of drug trafficking activities,
3. The consolidation of the counterdrug efforts in the Caribbean transit zone,
4. The continued development of a comprehensive regional strategy.Operation Columbus was planned and initiated by the CFD to severely impact the drug trafficking activities in the Caribbean and source country areas. Columbus was implemented through interdiction and eradication efforts, enforcement operations involving the use of undercover agents, confidential sources, Title III intercepts, and surveillance.
The final arrest and seizure statistics for Operation Columbus were
unprecedented for this region. There were in excess of 1,290 arrests, as
well as the seizure of 900 kilograms of cocaine and nine kilograms of heroin.
Over 38 weapons, 26 vehicles, 27 vessels, three laboratories and one aircraft
were seized. In addition, 1,097 metric tons of marijuana were eradicated.
It became evident during the course of this massive undertaking that
a coordinated effort among all the respective participants was necessary.
Through the diligence of all those involved, these operations struck a
solid blow to the Caribbean-based trafficking groups. Clearly, concerted
law enforcement efforts, such as Operations Genesis and Columbus, will
significantly enhance our ability to eliminate drug trafficking organizations
throughout the Caribbean region.
The transit of illegal drugs through Puerto Rico creates unique challenges
to law enforcement. DEA is aggressively addressing the trafficking threat
to Puerto Rico and working to improve the ability of DEA personnel assigned
to the island to confront the threat.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee.
I appreciate the interest you and the subcommittee have shown in DEA's
drug law enforcement efforts in Puerto Rico. At this time, I will be happy
to answer any questions you or the other committee members may have.