The five men accused of drug trafficking seemed a bit out of place as they sat handcuffed and bewildered in a federal courtroom here this week.
The five were charged with running more than a ton of Colombian cocaine into Puerto Rican waters on a speedboat in what the Customs Service calls the second-largest cocaine bust in this U.S. territory's history. That kind of operation has become alarmingly routine, officials here say, since Puerto Rico emerged as a major gateway to the multibillion-dollar cocaine market in the U.S. in recent years.
Colombia's cocaine cartels traditionally have contracted out to Dominican or Puerto Rican smugglers, U.S. officials say. But the boat captain and four crewmen who were arraigned in U.S. District Court were Colombians--signaling what could be a major shift in the cast of characters on this fast-growing cocaine route.
"The smuggling trade here is dominated by Dominicans, so this was an anomaly for us," said Frank Figueroa, the chief Customs Service agent here. "But there are signs that it may indeed be a trend."
Figueroa credited the switch, in part, to recent U.S. law enforcement successes in penetrating the Dominican drug smuggling gangs based here and in the nearby Dominican Republic. But he added that the Colombian cocaine cartels also appear to be losing trust in their intermediaries in the region after a series of customs, Coast Guard and local police operations intercepted large quantities of the drug and jailed dozens here this year.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials have said that Colombia's cocaine producers turned increasingly to Dominican drug smuggling gangs in the mid-1990s after the Mexican trafficking organizations that have moved the majority of the drug across the United States' southern border grew too powerful, wealthy and greedy.
The increased traffic of cocaine--and now, heroin--through the Caribbean has driven up street crime, fueled drug abuse and corrupted local officials on islands throughout the region, those U.S. officials say. It also has empowered and enriched the smuggling groups in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico--where dozens of daily flights to the U.S. mainland make the island an ideal transshipment point.
But Colombians' disenchantment with their Caribbean partners also appears to be growing, officials at this newest front line in the drug war say.
Last weekend's arrest of the five Colombians aboard a 33-foot speedboat that customs agents said was carrying 2,400 pounds of cocaine and a map plotting a direct course from the Colombian coast to Puerto Rico came after a series of arrests of Colombians at San Juan's international airport.
Figueroa said the Colombians have been hiring their own nationals to act as "mules" carrying packets of heroin swallowed before transiting Puerto Rico for the mainland. Customs checks arriving passengers in Puerto Rico, which is considered a U.S. port of entry, but not outgoing domestic flights.
Officials point to the recent arrest of the Colombian boat crew six miles off Puerto Rico's southern coast as evidence that U.S. law enforcement has managed to compromise the Puerto Rico-based drug gangs and their contract operations for the Colombians.
An affidavit filed in the case stated that the operation started with a tip in the Puerto Rican city of Mayaguez--"information that four Colombian males would attempt to smuggle a load of cocaine from Santa Marta, Colombia, via a go-fast vessel scheduled to arrive in . . . Puerto Rico sometime after dark."
A Customs Service aircraft spotted the suspect boat 24 miles off Puerto Rico's shores and followed it into U.S. waters, where customs officials say the crew dumped 36 bales of cocaine that were later recovered.