The end of pandemic-related lockdown is bringing a wave of cocaine to Puerto Rico

Coast Guard Caribbean cocaine Puerto Rico
Coast Guard cutter Heriberto Hernandez crew members offload over 200 kilograms of cocaine, valued at over $5.6 million, at Coast Guard Base San Juan, March 2, 2021.

  • A surge in cocaine seizures indicates that routes through Puerto Rico are reactivating after pandemic-related dormancy.
  • Puerto Rico has strategic value for traffickers moving drugs to the US because of its status as a US territory.
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Puerto Rico is seeing a surge in cocaine seizures, indicating that drug flows are being reactivated after months of dormancy amid pandemic lockdowns and that the island is on track to tally a record drug haul in 2021.

The latest seizure occurred on April 17, when the United States Coast Guard intercepted a speedboat traveling along the coast of Aguadilla that was carrying 400 kilograms of cocaine, El Nuevo Día reported.

According to Puerto Rican authorities, the total amount of cocaine seized was up by nearly half year-on-year through March and 64% through mid-April.

On April 8, Puerto Rico tallied a record cocaine haul, according to the Associated Press. Puerto Rican Police Commissioner Antonio López reported the seizure of 2.4 tons, valued at $50 million. López explained that the drugs were being transported in speedboats off the southeastern town of Yabucoa.

One month beforehand, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported the seizure of almost two tons of cocaine, also in Yabucoa.

According to InSight Crime’s press monitoring, around six tons of cocaine have been seized from January to late April along the island’s Caribbean Coast. This compares to 15.6 tons for 2019, already one of the highest totals on record, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In its most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) mentioned that Puerto Rico is used as a transit point by Dominican, Colombian and Venezuelan drug traffickers, as well as Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).

The island offers strategic value for traffickers moving drugs to the United States due to its status as a US territory. Once the drug shipments enter Puerto Rico, they are more easily transported to the continental United States, as Puerto Ricans can transit freely and do not have to go through customs controls.

InSight Crime analysis

Coast Guard Caribbean cocaine Puerto Rico
Coast Guard crew members offload 302 kilograms of cocaine valued at $8.5 million in San Juan, Puerto Rico, January 28, 2021.

Puerto Rican authorities believe that the spike in cocaine transiting the island is due to the months of restrictions on transit amid the pandemic, the testing of new trafficking routes and the backlog of accumulated drugs.

“[Due to the confinement], drug traffickers had difficulties in moving merchandise. The consequence may have been that the drugs accumulated and they are looking for ways to enter the drugs,” Lt. Felícita Coreano, director of the Puerto Rico’s United Rapid Action Force (Fuerzas Unidas de Rápida Acción – FURA), told El Nuevo Día.

According to the DEA, cocaine shipments enter Puerto Rico almost entirely by sea. The shipments are mostly sent by speedboats and fishing vessels from Colombia and Venezuela. These boats usually make a stop in the Dominican Republic, where the drugs are collected by criminal networks who then move them to other destinations, including Puerto Rico.

However, in its latest report, the DEA warned of a new speedboat route directly connecting Venezuela to Puerto Rico and bypassing the Dominican Republic. This route could be behind the increasingly large shipments found in the US territory.

“[The drug traffickers] are looking to expand and find new shipping routes,” Habib Massari, a drug policy expert in Puerto Rico, told El Nuevo Día.

Investigations conducted by InSight Crime in the Caribbean indicate that a number of criminal networks in Puerto Rico provide logistical services for international traffickers, especially Dominican groups.

Dominican groups are responsible for coordinating drug shipments from Puerto Rico to the United States ­- particularly to northeastern states – via shipping containers, messenger services, private planes and “mules.”

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Mexico still has the most violent cities in the world, but new hotspots are emerging

Mexico Guerrero homicide crime scene
People and soldiers at the scene of a homicide in Chilpancingo, in Mexico’s Guerrero state, November 15, 2017.

  • For the fourth consecutive year, Mexico has dominated a list of the most violent cities in the world.
  • But smaller towns have risen in the rankings, reflecting new hotspots where criminal groups are fighting for control.
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For the fourth consecutive year, Mexico has dominated a list of the most violent cities in the world but smaller towns have shot up the rankings, reflecting new hotspots where criminal groups are fighting for control.

The most violent place in the world in 2020 was Celaya, a city of around half a million people in the central state of Guanajuato, according to the report by a Mexican non-governmental organization, the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal).

The Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) have been battling around Celaya over control of oil theft, drug trafficking and other criminal economies,

A few years ago, Celaya wasn’t even on the list. But since 2018, it has shot up more than thirty places, with 699 killings in 2020, or a homicide rate of over 109 per 100,000 habitants.

The situation is similar in nearby Irapuato, also in Guanajuato, which has gone from newcomer to fifth-most violent city in the world, with 823 homicides last year.

Located only a few hours away from Celaya and Irapuato, the city of Uruapan has climbed to eighth in the rankings, with a homicide rate over 72 per 100,000 habitants. It is the deadliest place in the state of Michoacán, which has seen regular clashes between the CJNG and about a dozen other criminal factions, all seeking control of key cocaine and fentanyl trafficking routes.

And the city of Zacatecas, in central Mexico, only appeared on the list in 2019 but broke into the top 15 most violent cities in 2020. This coincided with the CJNG invading 17 municipalities in Zacatecas state in April 2020, during the country’s first lockdown and clashing with the Sinaloa Cartel and other groups throughout the year.

Latin American and Caribbean cities made up the overwhelming majority of the list, claiming 46 of 50 spots. But notably, some of the most murderous cities of past years, such as Kingston, Jamaica or Caracas, Venezuela, have dropped below smaller Mexican newcomers.

InSight Crime analysis

Guadalajara Mexico crime scene homicide murder
Forensic technicians at the scene of a homicide on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico, January 10, 2018.

Bloodshed in Mexico has reached such a level that continued outbreaks of violence in individual, medium-sized cities can register on a global scale, due to larger cartels with a national presence facing smaller but entrenched adversaries.

In August 2019, InSight Crime reported that Irapuato, an important industrial and trade center in central Mexico, had become an unfortunate model for similar cities in the country. At the time, clashes between the CJNG and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel had already been raging since 2018.

Despite the arrest of Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel leader, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” in August 2020, shocking acts of violence have not stopped.

The fighting is brutal but fragmented, having broken down into neighborhood- and street-level feuds that appear endless.

With the fall of Yépez Ortiz, his group began to internally fracture, with smaller groups claiming pieces of the illicit oil economy, leading to additional violence at the same time that the government was executing a plan to militarize the area.

Uruapan tells a different story as the climb in homicides there has been more sudden. While located in the western state of Michoacán, which has consistently been a patchwork of rival clans, Uruapan saw violence spike in late 2019 when the CJNG moved in and faced off against Cárteles Unidos.

The latter is an alliance between members of Los Viagras and Cartel del Abuelo, two Michoacán-based groups, who have teamed up to defend their control of drug trafficking routes.

Similarly, Zacatecas had actually seen homicides drop by 9% in 2019 before they spiked again in 2020 after the CJNG moved in.

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Police in Spain have seized the first ‘narco sub’ built in Europe

Spain narco sub
A semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to two tons of drugs, known as a “narco sub,” seized by Spain’s National Police in February 2020.

  • On March 12, Spanish police announced the seizure of a 9-meter semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to 2 tons of drugs.
  • It was the first known narco-submarine to have been built in Spain or in Europe and indicates that knowledge needed for building the vessels is possibly being exported.
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Authorities in Europe – already overwhelmed by a flood of cocaine arriving in cargo ships – now must face another smuggling method that has bedeviled law enforcement in the Americas: the “narco-submarine.”

On March 12, Spain’s National Police announced the seizure of a 9-meter semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to two tons of drugs. The submarine was still in the process of being assembled when it was discovered in a warehouse in the country’s coastal province of Málaga.

It was the first known narco-submarine to have been constructed in Spain, according to police. Europol officials later confirmed that it was also the first seized sub have been built anywhere in Europe, saying that vessels intercepted in the past had been manufactured in Latin America.

The seizure came as part of an anti-drug operation carried out by Europol, with help from authorities in Spain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The trafficking group – which operated out of Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region and was composed of Spanish, Colombian and Dominican nationals – moved cocaine, hashish and marijuana across Europe. Between April 2020 and February 2021, a string of operations helped break up the network, resulting in 52 arrests and the seizure of over three tons of cocaine.

InSight Crime analysis

Spain narco sub cocaine drug smuggling
The Spanish civil guard tows a sunken submarine in northwest Spain, November 26, 2019. Authorities said it was the first time a sub was found to be used in drug trafficking in Spain.

The discovery of the first narco-submarine manufactured in Spain indicates that knowledge needed for building the vessels is possibly being exported.

Drug submarines have traditionally sailed up the Pacific from Colombia to the United States. The vessels first appeared in the late 1990s but really took off about a decade later, with improved designs and construction. Difficult to detect and able to carry large cocaine loads, the submarines continue to be a favored trafficking method.

During the first eight months of last year, 27 semi-submersible vessels were seized, Colombian Adm. Hernando Mattos reported. Fourteen were detected in Colombian waters, and another 13 in international waters.

Traffickers based in Europe, meanwhile, have principally relied on using shipping containers and human smugglers, known as drug mules, to distribute cocaine across the continent.

In 2019, however, the first submarine to cross the Atlantic was intercepted off the coast of Spain. And now the first narco-sub building site has been found in that country.

While the vessel was likely to be used to move drugs around Europe, rather than to make a long-haul trip, it is possible that South American traffickers have been sharing their technical expertise with counterparts in Europe.

At an online seminar earlier this month, InSight Crime co-director Jeremy McDermott said that the technology and manufacturing know-how needed to construct drug submarines are being exported by criminal groups.

As drug seizures targeting shipping containers have risen, narco-submarines could become more attractive to traffickers, despite their high construction costs.

If that is the case, European authorities should prepare for anti-submarine operations such as those seen in the United States, where dramatic videos of guardsmen jumping on speeding vessels are not uncommon.

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Mexico’s tourist corridor is becoming a dream destination for drug traffickers

Playa del Carmen Quintana Roo Mexico police soldiers beach
Municipal police stand guard on the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, January 17, 2017.

  • Recent high-profile drug plane interceptions suggest the once tranquil Mexican state of Quintana Roo is growing as a drug-trafficking hub.
  • Most of the drugs are likely smuggled on to the US, while some are shipped to Europe or remain in Mexico for domestic production.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A recent string of high-profile drug plane interceptions suggests the once tranquil Mexican state of Quintana Roo is being increasingly relied upon as a drug trafficking hub.

On February 5, local media reports claimed a Cessna-type jet suspected of being used by drug traffickers had been found partially incinerated after it landed in the community of Nuevo Tabasco, close to Quintana Roo’s border with Campeche.

Military officials were present at the site, as it was suspected drugs transported by the plane might have been hidden in mountains surrounding the illegal landing spot, according to local media outlet, Quadratín Quintana Roo.

The report added that the aircraft had been detected by Mexico’s air force earlier that morning, before it was found partially destroyed hours later.

Last year, the state saw a number of irregular landings linked to drug trafficking.

In October, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed in a morning press conference that a plane carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine had landed at Chetumal Airport in southern Quintana Roo just hours earlier.

López Obrador reported that three suspicious jets had been detected entering Mexican airspace before they were swiftly pursued by members of the nation’s military and Secretary of National Defense. While one plane landed in Chetumal, with authorities subsequently detaining a member of its crew, the remaining two aircraft managed to evade authorities.

Mexico soldier Cancun
A Mexican soldier patrols a street in Cancun, August 19, 2007.

Military sources suggested the planes could have arrived in the state from Colombia or Venezuela, according to Sol Quintana Roo.

Last July, the state’s then-police chief, Alberto Capella, tweeted that a plane suspected of being involved in illicit activities had strikingly landed on a public highway in the municipality of Chunhuhub.

After consulting military sources, Milenio reported the Hawker 700 jet had initiated its journey in Venezuela, before landing on the Mexican road in broad daylight, where a truck was awaiting its descent. The media outlet added that authorities later found both vehicles abandoned, discovering just under half a ton of cocaine worth over $5.2 million left in the deserted truck.

Drug planes from Argentina and Colombia also disembarked in Quintana Roo last year.

Authorities intercepted an aircraft piloted by two Bolivian nationals traveling from Argentina to Mexico’s largely touristic Cozumel island in January 2020, seizing around a ton of cocaine in the process.

Some of those making such flights have reportedly managed to transport their illicit loads onward overland.

Most crews have evaded capture, despite being traced and pursued by authorities.

Just beyond Quintana Roo’s southern border, Belize has also seen such flights land illegally, as drugs are increasingly trafficked northward. On January 29 of this year, a clandestine aircraft carrying over 90 kilograms of suspected cocaine disembarked in the nation, with nine people detained following its descent, media outlet Amandala reported.

InSight Crime analysis

Mexico Cancun soldiers mall shooting
Mexican soldiers in a mall following reports of gunfire, in Cancun, January 17, 2017.

Illicit flights disembarking in the state have largely carried sizeable shipments of cocaine, ultimately fueled by record production of the drug in a host of South American countries including Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

While 2021 has only seen one such flight disembark in Quintana Roo so far, last year eight aircraft linked to drug trafficking were reported to have made irregular landings in the state, preceded by 2019’s staggering total of 14, according to the Quadratín Quintana Roo.

However, the media outlet added that Mexico’s air surveillance system – controlled by the nation’s air force – reports an average of three irregular flights made within the state’s boundaries per week.

Although cocaine has passed through Quintana Roo for decades, security analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime that an increased number of drug flights landing in the state in recent years may be a product of the tightening land border between Mexico and Central American countries, as well as former US President Donald Trump’s pressure on the Mexican government to act in this respect.

Most of the drugs that are successfully transported on from Quintana Roo ultimately reach the US, while some are shipped to Europe or remain in Mexico for domestic production, according to Hope.

The analyst added that those who receive the cocaine in Quintana Roo may be linked to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG). The drugs may also be collected by residual members of the Gulf Cartel and Zetas, who have been known to operate in the state, Hope suggested.

InSight Crime reported on how Quintana Roo has seen an increase in violence related to organized crime of late, with independent cartels battling for control over lucrative drug distribution points. Such battles have been spilling over into events attended by tourists, allegedly including a music festival in Tulum last October.

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