Anti-narcotics authorities in the Dominican Republic announced they had dismantled a drug trafficking ring that used commercial airplanes to smuggle cocaine from Venezuela to the Caribbean, shining a light on a dark alliance between military personnel and legitimate business interests.
The National Drugs Control Agency (DNCD) announced the arrest of 15 people, including Rafael Rosado Fermin, the owner of domestic airline Caribair. Among the detainees are three members of the military, including an Air Force lieutenant, an Army lieutenant colonel and a sergeant major. A former police officer was also taken into custody, according to Hoy newspaper.
The other detainees include several Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans.
The head of the DNCD said that the trafficking ring was based out of a local airport in the town of Constanza, some 150 kilometers from the capital, Santo Domingo. The traffickers would send aircraft to the western state of Apure in Venezuela to pick up cocaine shipments. Then fly to the Dominican Republic.
Six airplanes were also seized as part of the law enforcement operation.
According to the AP, the DNCD said that the investigation into the trafficking ring began in 2011 with assistance from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But the arrests were made after authorities began investigating a plane crash near Constanza on September 27, which killed both the pilot and the passenger on board. The crash was ruled a mechanical accident, and led to the arrest of the three suspected military officials involved in the trafficking ring.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Dominican Republic is an important transit point for cocaine smuggled through the Caribbean. However what makes this case alarming is that, according to the US State Department, the most frequently used routes are maritime ones. The Dominican Republic reported only one suspected drug flight from South America in 2011, compared to the 11 suspected flights in 2010. The recent dismantling of this trafficking ring is one indication that aerial routes to Venezuela are still being used by drug traffickers.
Dominican Republic has taken action to try and discourage drug flights, passing a law last year that would require small planes to purchase their fuel from the DNCD. This could help explain the high number of officials captured as part of this law enforcement operation.
The island also has credited the usage of its modernized Air Force fleet, including eight Super Tucano warplanes, with driving drug flights away from the Caribbean island. The Air Force even once declared that the number of drug flights entering the country was reduced to zero.
But as these recent arrests show, drug traffickers may still be using the airspace with the complicity of business and security officials. These flights, therefore, were technically authorized making this ring more difficult to dismantle.
The US is certainly worried about the Caribbean, but also appears focused on sea traffic. The US Department of Homeland Security has said it intends to begin drone flights over the 1,000 mile stretch of ocean between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, mainly intended to monitor go-fast boats and other vessels.
The captures also solidify theories around Venezuelan trafficking routes. Apure province, which borders Colombia, was serving as a pickup and embarkation point. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, low-flying drug flights and airstrips are common sights in Apure, while Venezuelan authorities frequently report large-scale cocaine seizures here.
Colombian rebel groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are both based in Apure and are involved in the cocaine trade, selling shipments to Colombian traffickers or to corrupt factions of the Venezuelan security forces.
Finally, the fact that the owner of an airline businesses and several mid-ranking members of the security forces were alleged collaborators in the drug trafficking ring points to the corrupting power of the drug trade in the Dominican Republic. Last year the police fired 360 officers for corruption, while the DNCD dismissed 84 employees, according to the US State Department.