Drug trafficking flight routes

Aerial surveys by the US Military’s Southern Command show that drug traffickers are shifting back to Caribbean sea routes in response to pressure on trafficking corridors running through the Central American isthmus.

Drug networks have also adopted new tactics to evade detection, officials at the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF-S) told the Guatemalan news organization Siglo21. Traffickers now slow their go-fast boats, whose high speeds once made them easy to spot, to the pace of normal fishing boats and sometimes conceal them amid a fleet of up to 20 other vessels.

According to Siglo21, the US State Department says the number of maritime trafficking events occurring on the Caribbean side of the Central American isthmus numbered 541 in 2011, compared to the Pacific Ocean’s 405 trafficking-related incidents, highlighting the Caribbean’s renewed importance to drug traffickers.

Furthermore, officials have observed a marked shift in drug flights. In 2009, many flew directly from South America to Honduras. In the last two years, however, flights have increasingly gone via Caribbean islands (see image above), with shipments later sent to the isthmus.

InSight Crime Analysis

Leaders from Caribbean states warned the US in 2010 that drug traffickers were increasingly turning to the Caribbean as a route -- one favored during the 1980s when some 80 percent of US-bound cocaine moved through the region -- due to pressure on overland routes through Central America. The pressure has increased this year through Operation Martillo, a US-led counternarcotics strategy in Central America that began in January.

The operation's first phase focused on stemming sea trafficking routes in the Honduran Gulf, and has since shifted to the southwest of Guatemala where some 170 US marines were recently deployed. In June, the agency reported to the US House Committee on Homeland Security that cocaine flow in most parts of Central America had decreased. Despite this success, there was a noticeable a spike in boats leaving from Colombia’s Pacific coast, constituting a 55 percent rise in cocaine trafficking in the area, according to the report.

The new maritime routes have not yet supplanted overland trafficking, DEA administrator Michele Leonhart said in a statement (see pdf here) before the US House of Representatives subcommittee on crime, terrorism, and homeland security in June. With pressure set to continue on trafficking corridors in Central America, though, it is likely the Caribbean will be increasingly utilized for drug shipments.