The Caribbean’s geographic location and countless islands make it a huge transshipment route for drugs heading to the United States, a dynamic that has fostered high rates of violence and gang-related crime.
Weak governance and endemic corruption have been essential in strengthening organized crime’s roots in the region.
The Caribbean Sea’s location between South America and the United States places it on one of the most important drug trafficking routes in the Western Hemisphere. Its countless small, uninhabited islands and cays stretching across more than 1 million square miles are ideal for smugglers. There are 15 sovereign countries in the Caribbean region.
During the 1980s, the Caribbean Sea was the preferred route for Latin America’s drug traffickers, with around 80 percent of all US-bound cocaine transiting through the region. Ensuing anti-narcotic operations in the Caribbean pushed traffickers towards Central America, which became the primary transit corridor to the United States.
However, there have been indications since at least 2010 that the Caribbean route is re-emerging. In 2013, cocaine flow to the United States via the Caribbean reportedly reached its highest levels in a decade. Drug interdiction efforts in Mexico and Central America — including various US-led initiatives — may be behind this shift back to the Caribbean route, which currently represents around 15 percent of all cocaine movement in the Western Hemisphere.
Today, large amounts of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs transit through the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, The Bahamas, the Dutch Caribbean and the Eastern Caribbean.
The remote Caribbean coastlines of mainland countries — such as Central America’s Mosquitia region — are key drug dispatch or transshipment points due to their limited infrastructure and state presence.
The primary methods used by traffickers include shipping drugs in commercial containers, luxury craft or “go-fast” boats, commercial or private flights and human drug mules.
Trafficking in the region is facilitated by long coastlines that are difficult to patrol, a flurry of commercial maritime and air traffic that helps conceal illicit cargos, and widespread government and security force corruption.
Drug production is perhaps most prominent in Jamaica, which is the largest Caribbean supplier of marijuana to the United States.
The illegal drug trade has fuelled high levels of violence in the Caribbean region. In Puerto Rico, for example, at least 80 percent of killings are believed to be drug-related. The region continues to see local gang wars over control of criminal economies, and is characterized by high gun use. There are an estimated 1.6 million illegal firearms circulating in the Caribbean.
In addition, in places such as the Dominican Republic, drug trafficking organizations have been paying local groups for their services in narcotics and firearms, feeding a domestic micro-trafficking market and clashes between groups looking to control the trade.
Contraband and money laundering are also prominent criminal activities. The Caribbean is home to a number of tax havens — including the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico — which are exploited by criminals to hide illicit proceeds. Traffickers also use the same drug routes to move bulk cash through the region and into South America.
Forced labor and sexual exploitation is a severe problem in many Caribbean countries, and victims are trafficked both within the region and beyond.
Colombian and Mexican transnational criminal organizations are involved in drug trafficking through the Caribbean with the collaboration of local groups.
Colombian traffickers have historically worked closely with Dominican groups, and there are signs that Mexican organizations — primarily the Sinaloa and Zetas cartels — have been exerting increasing control over trafficking in the region. Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia also operates in the Caribbean.
Today, primarily Dominican and Puerto Rican transnational criminal organizations ship cocaine to the United States and have access to cocaine markets on the US East Coast. They are also the main cocaine retail and wholesale distributors in the Caribbean region.
Caribbean gangs are closely linked to the region’s high homicide rates. Among these are the Dominican Republic’s Los Trinitarios, Jamaica’s now fragmented Shower Posse and Jamaican lottery scam rings that have been blamed for surges in violence.
Organized crime in the Caribbean has come to exert social control and co-opt the state in a variety of ways. In countries like Jamaica and Haiti, for example, government sectors have established political alliances with local gangs to compensate for the state’s abandonment of certain communities. Trinidad and Tobago’s gangs also perform key social functions.
Drug-related corruption within Caribbean security forces continues to allow criminal organizations to evade law enforcement.
Corrupt state agents are also heavily involved in organized crime themselves. In the Dominican Republic, security forces are believed to be involved in up to 90 percent of organized crime cases, including contract killings, arms trafficking and extortion. The role of authorities in the illegal drug smuggling is so deep in certain cases that they could be considered traffickers in their own right.
The US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) carries out anti-narcotic operations and air and maritime surveillance in the Caribbean in cooperation with partner countries.
The US-led aid program the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) was developed in 2009 and geared towards drug interdiction, public security and promoting justice. It provided $386 million in US aid between 2010 and 2015.
In 2017, the US unveiled a new aid program that aims to “dismantle illicit trafficking networks, enhance maritime security, confront violent and organized crime, and increase the sharing of threat information among countries.”
Caribbean countries largely have a poor record in prosecuting criminals and crooked state officials due to a weak, corrupt judicial system.
In the 2015-2016 World Economic Forum’s judicial independence rating the Dominican Republic ranked 124th out of 140 countries, while Haiti ranked 118th, Trinidad and Tobago ranked 51st and Jamaica ranked 40th.
Conditions in many Caribbean prisons are harsh due to inadequate facilities and extreme overcrowding. The region has some of the highest prison population rates in the world — St Kitts and Nevis, the US Virgin Islands and Cuba are among the worst ten countries globally, with over 500 prisoners per 100,000 people.
Haiti has the highest overcrowding levels in the world, with jails at over 450 percent capacity. This is a problem across the region including in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and much of the Eastern Caribbean.
Extensive pretrial detention is also a prominent, while employee corruption and abuse of inmates continues to be a cause for concern.