Co-ordinated countermeasures of Caribbean countries against the illicit drug traffic: recent developments and prospects


Drug trafficking in the Caribbean
Transit drug trafficking
Methods of smuggling
Impediments to drug abuse control
Government responses to drug trafficking and drug abuse
Subregional responses
Co-operation between countries and territories in the Caribbean and the United States
Future prospects
Concluding remarks


Pages: 69 to 78
Creation Date: 1987/01/01

Co-ordinated countermeasures of Caribbean countries against the illicit drug traffic: recent developments and prospects

A. M. SHERMAN-PETER Consul General of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas in New York, N.Y., United States of America


The illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances presents a growing threat to the Caribbean countries and territories. The geographical location of the Caribbean subregion between the areas in South America producing illicit drugs and lucrative illicit markets in North America and Europe is an important factor contributing to an increasing involvement of the subregion in illicit drug trafficking operations. In addition, the archipelagic configuration of many of the countries and territories of the Caribbean makes it easier for traffickers to escape law enforcement action, thus providing a further stimulus to international drug trafficking.

The Caribbean Governments have therefore initiated law enforcement counter measures to combat drug trafficking and taken legal and administrative action to prevent and eradicate illicit cultivation of narcotic crops, as well as to prevent and reduce illicit demand for drugs. The Governments have also made increasing efforts to improve international and bilateral co-operation to combat drug trafficking and drug abuse. The decisive efforts of Caribbean Governments, however, are impeded, on the one hand, by the limited availability of trained professional manpower and of the technical and economic resources required to combat drug trafficking effectively, and, on the other hand, by the superior financial and technical capacity of the international drug trafficking organizations. The provision of technical and financial assistance by the international community to the countries and territories of the Caribbean is therefore needed to help overcome these constraints and to enable them to cope with the increasing drug problems in the subregion.


Drug trafficking and drug abuse pose a growing threat to the countries and territories of the Caribbean subregion. An increasing number of arrests and convictions for possession and trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances and an increasing number and quantity of drugs seized are reported from all parts of the Caribbean.

The illicit traffic is for the most part in transit. Emphasis is therefore placed on law enforcement, which is the traditional first line of defence against entry of illicit drugs.

As the volume of drug trafficking grows, the populations of the Caribbean countries and territories are becoming increasingly victims of drug abuse. In response, the Governments are taking the requisite measures. Their priorities are to prevent the flow of illicit drugs into and through their territories, and to prevent and eradicate any illicit cultivation of narcotic crops, as well as to prevent and reduce drug abuse among local populations. These objectives can best be achieved through increased national efforts taking full advantage of regional and international co-operation.

Drug trafficking in the Caribbean

Cannabis and cocaine are the principal drugs in the illicit transit traffic in the Caribbean subregion. Huge amounts of cannabis and cocaine have been seized in most countries and territories. For example, a single law enforcement operation in the Bahamas resulted in the seizure of 28.1 tonnes of cannabis and 2.6 tonnes of cocaine.

Evidence suggests that only a small proportion of cannabis is produced in the subregion for the illicit markets. It is estimated that approximately 7 per cent of cannabis on the illicit market in the United States of America is of Caribbean origin. There is no evidence of coca bush cultivation, nor of processing and refining illicit drugs in the subregion. Still, according to some estimates, one third of cocaine and cannabis smuggled into the United States transits the Bahamas.

Target markets for the vast amounts of illicit narcotic drugs transiting the Caribbean are not the countries and territories of the subregion, which have miniscule populations and limited foreign exchange, but other countries, mainly in North America, and to a lesser extent in Europe.

South America is identified as the source of most of the illicit narcotic drugs transiting the Caribbean. According to the estimate of the National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee, approximately one third of heroin, 80 per cent of cannabis and 100 per cent of cocaine currently on the illicit market in the United States originates from Latin American countries. This represents three quarters of the illicit drug market in that country, which exceeds 10 billion dollars in value [1-4].

Transit drug trafficking

The location of the Caribbean subregion between the sources of drug supply in South America and illicit markets in North America and Europe, together with the archipelagic geographical configuration of many of the Caribbean countries and territories, has significantly contributed to the development of current drug trafficking problems.

The Bahamas, in the north, is approximately 96 km off the coast of Florida. Trinidad and Tobago, in the south, is approximately 13 km off the coast of Venezuela. Therefore, the Carribbean islands form natural stepping stones from the supply centres in South America to illicit markets in North America. Furthermore, many of the Caribbean countries and territories have archipelagic geographical configuration which makes it easier for drug traffickers to evade law enforcement action. The Bahamas, for example, is comprised of approximately 700 islands, dispersed over 343,000 km 2 of ocean.

Transit drug trafficking first developed in the northern Caribbean countries and territories (including the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos Islands), which are at one end close to the sources of supply, particularly those in Colombia, and at the other to the large illicit markets in North America. As early as 1980, the representatives of the Bahamas, speaking in various international forums, pointed out that the new focus of international drug trafficking was the Latin American and Caribbean region, and that this problem warranted immediate attention.

At present, illicit transit drug trafficking is developing in the south of the subregion (including Barbados, Saint Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago). This shift has very probably developed because of drug enforcement activities by the South Florida Task Force in the United States, and because of increased law enforcement activities by the countries and territories in the northern Caribbean. Furthermore, co-operative efforts between the Governments of the northern Caribbean countries and territories and the United States have made smuggling in this area more difficult, but the illicit transit traffic in drugs continues to be of particular concern throughout the subregion.

Methods of smuggling

Initially, the principal illicit drug involved in trafficking was cannabis, which was up to 1981 smuggled mainly by "mothership" operations. Large fishing vessels and coastal freighters, usually loaded off the coast of Colombia, made their way into the Caribbean (usually the north), where they off-loaded and stockpiled illicit cargoes on remote uninhabited islands or cays. The illicit narcotics were usually recovered and transshipped by smaller vessels, including pleasure craft, or aircraft with destinations in North America. Occasionally, transfers were made by sea. Motherships carried as much as 40 tonnes of cannabis.

The rise in importance of cocaine as a drug of abuse resulted in the development of more organized, sophisticated, well-equipped and well financed trafficking systems. Cocaine is less bulky, requires less space for transportation and is unquestionably more profitable. A wide range of aircraft, including DC-3s and DC-4s, is used to smuggle it. The methods of cannabis smuggling, described above, have changed to conform to this more organized system.

The highly effective "airdrop" method has become popular since 1981. Low-flying aircraft drop illicit cargoes on remote islands or cays, or in watertight packages into the open sea at determined sites. Recovery is then made from the airdrop area by collaborators waiting to do so or from the sea by smaller boats or ocean racing vessels. Cocaine is often smuggled by using the so-called "relay" method. Illicit cargoes are transferred from arriving aircraft to waiting fuelled aircraft for the onward passage. Such illicit operations rarely take more than half an hour.

Impediments to drug abuse control

The same geographical conditions of the Caribbean that make it susceptible to the illicit transit traffic create difficult problems for law enforcement agencies combating drug trafficking in Caribbean countries and territories. The difficulties of monitoring many islands in an archipelago, which are sparsely populated or unpopulated, often with deserted coastlines, are obvious. Lack of trained professional manpower and of economic and technical resources also often impede the efforts to suppress the illicit transit traffic.

Few countries and territories of the Caribbean subregion have populations of more than a quarter of a million, and they tend to be concentrated in urban centres. In the Bahamas, for example, the population of 229,000 occupy only 28 of the 700 islands and cays. More than half of the population reside on the islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama. Lack of customs facilities and non-existent or irregular police patrols in deserted areas encourage exploitation of such areas by international drug traffickers.

Global recession, depletion of foreign reserves and other economic hardships have adversely affected the Caribbean countries and territories, which are poor in natural resources. Effective prevention of drug trafficking requires mobility and appropriate equipment for communications, surveillance and intelligence gathering. The cost of aircraft, fast patrol boats and other technological aids are beyond the means of most Governments. To appreciate the plight of the subregion, these extreme limitations must be viewed in the light of the means, mobility and technological capacity of international drug traffickers.

At present, the technological level of law enforcement manpower cannot match that of international drug traffickers. Law enforcement under such conditions cannot effectively combat traffickers with all their sophisticated weaponry, transportation and communications systems. In addition, the existing law enforcement agencies are usually not specialized drug agencies. They also have other priorities, some of which are crucial to national development.

Customs agencies must be equally concerned with revenue collection and with prevention of drug trafficking. Defence forces, where they exist, also have multiple priorities. The Royal Bahamas Defense Force, for example, when established in 1971 (then the Marine Division of the Royal Bahamas Police Force), was empowered with a threefold mandate: to detect and prevent illegal immigrants from entering the Bahamas; to prevent illegal fishing in Bahamian waters; and to detect and apprehend drug smugglers. The absence of special drug enforcement agencies diffuses efforts against the illicit drug traffic.

Organized trafficking networks present a threat to the territorial integrity and security of the Caribbean subregion. In the Bahamas, their superior financial and technological capacity has been used to challenge law enforcement officers, and a police officer has already been shot.

The illicit traffic threatens to interfere with the tourist industry on which the subregion depends. Expeditious sea and air travel is the desired goal of tourism. When visible distinctions cannot be made between tourists and traffickers, or between pleasure craft and those of drug traffickers, law enforcement becomes a frustrating task. Furthermore, Governments must determine whether the safety and convenience of unattended airstrips outweigh the risk of their being used by drug traffickers. A comprehensive strategy must be developed to avoid the inevitable dilemma.

One of the effects of the illicit drug traffic on the Caribbean populations is increasing drug abuse, which many Governments are at present investigating ways to counteract. For example, epidemiological studies are being conducted to serve as a basis for developing drug abuse prevention strategies. Thus, drug trafficking further compounds the serious economic and social problems in the subregion.

Government responses to drug trafficking and drug abuse

At present, the Caribbean Governments are placing greater emphasis than in previous years on the development and implementation of national strategies against drug trafficking and drug abuse. Although only seven States are parties to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, many have established national co-ordinating bodies for drug control, as required by the Convention. A number of task forces have also been commissioned to assess the problems arising from drug trafficking and drug abuse and to make recommendations to Governments. The Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago have appointed commissions of inquiry to investigate various aspects of the drug trafficking and drug abuse problem. In Trinidad and Tobago, a commission to inquire into the incidence of drug abuse was appointed in 1984. In the Bahamas, a commission to inquire into the illegal use of the Bahamas for the transshipment of dangerous drugs destined for the United States was appointed in 1983. The recommendations of the latter commission included the following: an increase in the number of land vehicles to be used against drug trafficking and the provision of means to improve counter measures to drug smuggling by sea and by air; the use of more sophisticated investigative techniques; and discussions with the United States authorities with a view to securing assistance in expanding the coverage of the existing communications system in the Bahamas [ 5] .

Some Caribbean countries are taking steps to revise legislation or to adopt new legislation. The purpose of legislative reform is to introduce harsher penalties for drug crimes (including forfeiture of the proceeds thereof), to increase mandatory minimum sentences and to impose higher fines.

Trinidad and Tobago has adopted new legislation entitled the "Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substance Control Act, (1985)", which widens the range of goods and assets of convicted drug traffickers that can be seized. The court may order the forfeiture of any article, money or valuable that can be traced to a drug offence. The Bahamas adopted, in January 1987, an act to make provision for the recovery of the proceeds of drug trafficking and other provisions in connection with drug trafficking. The act provides, inter alia, for new powers for tracing and freezing the proceeds of drug trafficking, and for the imposition of a confiscation order on persons convicted of a drug offence.

Tighter supervision and security of sea ports and airports have been implemented and facilities have been upgraded. Jamaica has adopted an amendment to the Civil Aviation Act which, among other provisions, provides for the destruction of illegal airstrips and considers all unregistered airstrips illegal.

The Governments concerned are committed to ensuring that banking confidentiality is not exploited by drug traffickers to hide their illegally gained profits. The Bahamas Association of International Bank and Trusts Companies has moved to bolster existing Bahamian legislation that permits the piercing of banking confidentiality in criminal matters. In 1984, the Association adopted a Code of Conduct to further insulate the banking system against abuse.

Subregional responses

During the 1980s many countries and territories of the subregion have made determined and increasing efforts to reduce their own vulnerability to the illicit transit traffic and also to enhance regional and international co-operation in the area of drug control.

The First Seminar on Illicit Drug Traffic for Law Enforcement Officers of the Anglophone Caribbean was held in co-operation with the United Nations Division of Narcotic Drugs in Nassau from 22 to 31 March 1983 [ 6] . Fifteen Caribbean countries and territories represented at the seminar made clear commitments to take concerted action against the illicit traffic in the Caribbean. The seminar agreed that the control of drug trafficking and drug abuse was a matter on which regional efforts should focus and that a comprehensive strategy to be developed at the national and regional levels was imperative. The Seminar recommended that the drug control issue be placed on the agenda of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). CARICOM can facilitate co-operation and serve as a medium for collective action of countries and territories in the subregion.

The Eleventh Meeting of the Standing Committee of Ministers Responsible for Foreign Affairs, held in Basseterre (Saint Christopher and Nevis) from 8 to 11 May 1985, mandated the CARICOM secretariat to collate, with the assistance of experts, regional information on drug trafficking, transshipment, abuse and rehabilitation. In response, the results of a study of the problems were presented to the Ministers at their following meeting in mid-1986. In addition, during 1986, the issue of drug abuse and drug trafficking was considered by the Conference of Government Heads of CARICOM, and a meeting of attorney-generals, commissioners of police and comptrollers of customs called expressly to discuss drug problems. Wide-ranging recommendations for drug control emanating from these meetings and from a CARICOM consultant on drug matters include strengthening national legislation and co-operation in law enforcement and the development and implementation of programmes to counteract drug abuse.

The Nassau Seminar also made, inter alia, the following recommendations and suggestions:

  1. To give high priority to the provision of the technical and financial assistance required to address the urgent need for improved communications within and between countries; in this regard, it was recommended that Governments consider asking the United Nations, in co-operation with ICPO/Interpol, to arrange for a feasibility study on ways to improve communications within the subregion and interregionally among countries and territories affected by the illicit traffic; *

  2. To develop a regional drug law enforcement training capacity, which would supplement ongoing assistance provided by donor countries and relevant international agencies; suggestions in this regard included the cross-posting of drug law enforcement officers;

  3. To increase mutual assistance on the movement of known drug traffickers by maintaining "Stop Lists" of drug offenders and by exchanging such lists between law enforcement agencies;

  4. To give high priority to the provision of vehicles, vessels and aircraft to assist drug law enforcement and to the acquisition of technological and other aids, including the establishment of national narcotics laboratories;

  5. To keep national narcotic drug legislation under constant review and revision, as required, with emphasis on imposing adequate deterrent punishment for serious drug-related crimes; in framing such legislation, provisions on forfeiture of equipment or assets employed in drug trafficking should be included. Governments are also encouraged to make every effort, bilaterally and multilaterally, to harmonize laws;

  6. To request the United Nations Economic and Social Council and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs to endorse regular meetings of Heads of National Drug Law Enforcement Agencies for the Caribbean; **

  7. To encourage the mobilization of public support for drug law enforcement measures, utilizing non-governmental organizations for this purpose.

*The United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control approved in 1986 a two-year $500,000 project for the prevention and control of drug abuse in the Bahamas.

** The Commission on Narcotic Drugs at its thirty-second session in February 1987 adopted a draft resolution by which it invited the Governments of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and other interested Governments to participate in the regional meeting of the Heads of National Drug Law Enforcement Agencies (HONLEA) with a view to establishing the Latin American and Caribbean HONLEA, and asked the Economic and Social Council to recognize the Latin American and Caribbean Regional HONLEA at its next meeting as a subsidiary body similar to those already recognized.

The Governments of the Caribbean have taken action to advance many of the recommendations and suggestions of the Nassau Seminar.

The establishment of a permanent drug control co-ordinating mechanism within the subregion would be an important development, particularly if in due time it encompasses all countries and territories of the area. Such a mechanism could facilitate co-operation and co-ordination between countries and territories in the subregion and with other countries and territories in which illicit drugs transiting the Caribbean are either produced or consumed.

Cross-posting of law enforcement officers could be extended to include more subregional joint law enforcement programmes. Such programmes could also include joint operations of the Caribbean countries and territories with other countries and territories concerned.

Co-operation between countries and territories in the Caribbean and the United States

The 1985 report of the International Narcotics Control Board recognized efforts of the United States to boost the law enforcement capability of the countries and territories in the Caribbean subregion. Such efforts were reflected in the address of the Vice-President of the United States to the Press Club, Washington, D.C., in December 1983. He stated that the United States had intensified its diplomatic initiatives which had resulted in improved co-operation with the Bahamas, and that the results had been gratifying.

Joint enforcement and intelligence operations of the United States with countries and territories of the Caribbean subregion are becoming more frequent and generally yield good results. For example, two such joint law enforcement operations, called "Operation Blue Lightning" and "Operation Thunderstorm", resulted in seizures amounting to 3.61 tonnes of cocaine and 67.68 tonnes of cannabis. It is expected that future co-operation will continue to be mutually beneficial.

Police forces throughout the subregion have taken advantage of training programmes offered by the United States, resulting in increased operational skills, improved and expanded enforcement capabilities, and enhanced investigative co-operation and intelligence exchange.

Equipment has also been made available by the United States. Air transport has been loaned to the Bahamas, and as a consequence of an agreement between the two Governments, a special radar has been installed in one of the northern islands of the Bahamas archipelago. The radar is capable of identifying both ships and aircraft and is undoubtedly a valuable device for strategic locations throughout the subregion.

Co-operation with the United States has also been significant in other areas, such as the reduction of smuggling by air in commercial carriers, extradition and appearance of witnesses. Ongoing negotiations to conclude formal, mutual assistance agreements should lead to further mutually beneficial co-operation.

Future prospects

The efforts of the Caribbean Governments are undoubtedly a compelling reaction to the grave and complex problems caused by drug trafficking and drug abuse in the subregion. It is expected that present levels of enforcement and other activities will be maintained and further strengthened.

Law enforcement agencies need more sophisticated technology to increase the effectiveness of subregional efforts and to offset the superior technological capacity of international drug trafficking organizations. They must also strengthen their manpower and overcome the other constraints and limitations discussed above. To achieve these goals, Caribbean Governments need international support to develop communications and intelligence-gathering systems and narcotics testing laboratories. They need assistance in providing the necessary vehicles, vessels and aircraft and surveillance equipment to combat drug trafficking more effectively. In this connection, it is expected that provisions to address the special problems of transit States, which are to be included in the new convention against the illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, will considerably enhance the impact of counter-measures taken to combat the illicit traffic in the subregion.

The Caribbean subregion would benefit immensely if private craft were covered by the provisions of a new international convention against illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, currently being prepared. According to the Jamaican authorities, from 67 to 73 per cent of air drug trafficking through its territory is by private aircraft. The preponderance of private craft in drug trafficking is observed in most of the countries and territories of the subregion.

The importance of shared information on issues that easily cross national boundaries and the need to develop international strategies make the International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking to be held in Vienna in June 1987 a significant event for the Caribbean. It should produce important agreement at the political level that can enhance the effectiveness of subregional efforts.

The establishment of the new Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, recommended by the first Inter-American Specialized Conference on Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, held at Rio de Janeiro from 22 to 25 April 1986, promises to be of considerable benefit to the Caribbean subregion. Every aspect of the drug problem, including production, traffic and demand, is a grave issue in the Americas, the seriousness of which is borne out by the following circumstances: South America produces all the illicit cocaine in the world; the Caribbean subregion is used as a major area for drug transshipment; and North America has one of the world's largest markets for illicit drugs. It is therefore hoped that the Commission will become a new and effective force for enhancing co-operation within the Americas in the fight against drug trafficking and drug abuse.

Concluding remarks

The nature and extent of drug problems in the Caribbean subregion require the implementation of effective countermeasures to cope with them. These must include measures to reduce the supply of, and demand for, illicit narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.

Coherent strategies based on a realistic understanding of the conditions required for effective drug abuse control in the Caribbean subregion have already been initiated. With the necessary international support, such action can be substantially strengthened to provide a more effective deterrent to drug trafficking and drug abuse.

References Royal Canadian Mounted Police Monthly Digest of Drug Intelligence Trends, October and December 1985 (Ottawa, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 1985). R.T. Stamler, R. C. Fahlman and H. Vigeant, "Illicit traffic and abuse of cannabis in Canada", Bulletin on Narcotics (United Nations publication), vol. 37, No. 4 (1985), pp. 37-49. Lee Ill and W. Rensselaer, "The Latin American drug connection", Foreign Policy, No. 61, Winter 1985-1986. G. Nahas, "Critique of a study on ganja in Jamaica", Bulletin on Narcotics (United Nations publication), vol. 37, No. 4 (1985), pp. 15-29. Report of the Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Inquire into the Illegal Use of the Bahamas for the Transshipment of Dangerous Drugs Destined for the United States of America, October 1983-December 1984 (Nassau, Bahamas, 1984). "Summary report, conclusions and recommendations", First Seminar on Illicit Drug Traffic for Law Enforcement Officers of the Anglophone Caribbean, Nassau, Bahamas, 22-31 March 1983.