Narcotics and CorruptionPuerto Rico

Puerto Rican drug trafficking as the U.S misdirects its focus on the War on Drugs

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By: Clare Hogan, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Though never having been fully embraced as a state, Puerto Rico’s auspicious location in the central Caribbean has made it a longstanding interest of the United States. The area is respectably self-governing, yet still remains answerable to the United States in many aspects of its defense and foreign policy. U.S. Federal departments control the island’s international commerce, military operations, travel governances, transport regulations, and other countless legalities.[1] Thus, it is fair to assert that the United States should preserve its influence over the affairs of the commonwealth, especially with regards to trade, commerce, and international aspects of finances.

Nonetheless, the territory is ominously proving to be a principal actor in the illegal trafficking of drugs from Latin America into the U.S. mainland, indicating a noticeable failure of the national government to manage its own proprietary. Puerto Rico’s fundamental role in the illicit drug trade is particularly poignant considering the United States’ exorbitantly expensive War on Drugs. Evidently, Washington has no problem apportioning billions of tax dollars to pay for the unpopular internal drug war, yet an obvious need for funds and resources to secure the Puerto Rican border is being conveniently overlooked. The federal government demonstrates an irresponsible oversight by misallocating these valuable resources, and this error in judgment is proving increasingly devastating as drug trafficking routes through Puerto Rico grow.

No Customs No Problem

Although the U.S. government has played an active role in attempting to reduce drug trafficking rates, the flow of narcotics continues to reach new records, with more smugglers transporting drugs directly from South America to Puerto Rico. The legal distinction of Puerto Rico as a U.S territory expedites the smuggling process, as shipments departing Puerto Rico for the United States are not required to clear customs. Under current conditions, therefore, concealed drugs have a disturbingly good chance of entering the U.S. mainland undetected.[2]

Additionally, the coastline of Puerto Rico offers more than 700 miles of rough terrain and naturally occurring clandestine hideouts, which have proven advantageous for drug smugglers evading detection. The consistent traffic of tourism to Puerto Rico further complicates regional authorities’ efforts to identify illegal smuggling activity.[3] Foreign travelers essentially monopolize the focus of local security personnel and absorb efforts that could instead be used to patrol the coast.

Corruption in all arenas

Internal corruption among Puerto Rican officials has also plagued the effectiveness of crime-fighting initiatives and efforts to minimize drug trafficking. In recent years, the Puerto Rico Police Department has been heavily criticized, once referred to as “dysfunctional and recalcitrant” by the American Civil Liberties Union.[4] Last May, the United States Department of Justice confirmed the incarceration of sixteen police officers in Puerto Rico for their use of municipal resources to conduct criminal activities. Extortion, robbery, and the distribution of illicit drugs were but a few of the charges.[5]

These infringements of the law are not isolated incidents, however. Within the police force there is a long history of joint cooperation between government officials and organized crime groups. Having practically been institutionalized, corruption within the inner ranks of the government is hardly shocking; Puerto Rico consumes 30percent of all drugs circulated through the area.[6]

Puerto Rico’s Congressional representative, Pedro Pierluisi, stated in his June 2012 address to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that he did not believe that the organization had demonstrated enough concern for the commonwealth’s security. He argues: “There are nearly three times as many agents assigned to the Miami Field Office as there are to Puerto Rico, even though the island’s population is 7.5 times greater than…Miami’s – and our drug-related violence is off the charts.”[7] Though neglect cannot be considered a criminal act, in disregarding an issue that has such a great potential for disaster, the DEA’s actions are tantamount to enabling drug-related activities in Puerto Rico. In other words, their failure to interject in the area results in an insufficient law enforcement presence and a consequential rise in criminal activity.

The island also has an unusually high common crime rate, as well as a murder rate that is more than six times the U.S. national average. Gang violence connected to an already profitable drug trade – resulting in increased levels of crime, homicide, and drug trafficking through the area – has also become a more prominent issue. Some experts suggest that “increased drug transit through Puerto Rico may facilitate the evolution of domestic gangs by allowing them to form ties with transnational criminals operating on the island.”[8] That is, the gangs in Puerto Rico are not merely benefitting from monetary profits of the drug trade. The business is also increasing the prosperity and influence of these groups, as well as augmenting the frequency of gang-related violence on the island.

The Weakest Link: Lack of Security in Puerto Rico

Recent figures show that over 17,510 kilograms of cocaine have been seized en route to Puerto Rico so far this year; meanwhile, in 2011, only about 5,820 kilograms were apprehended in total.[9] That is more than a 300 percent increase within three years. On the surface, this statistic could indicate an achievement in efforts to curb drug trafficking in the area. Upon closer examination, however, the increase clearly demonstrates the reality of the current surge in illegal drugs now being funneled through Puerto Rico. It is estimated that as much as 87,550 kilograms of cocaine circulate annually through the island into the U.S. and interdiction efforts are only catching twenty-percent of that.[10]

Due to their successes in bringing drugs through Puerto Rico, drug smugglers are increasingly comfortable multiplying shipment sizes. Federal offices in charge of monitoring illegal trade and commerce are predominantly occupied with maintaining the heavily patrolled border between the U.S. and Mexico. This has resulted in shockingly poor security throughout the Puerto Rican coastline, as most U.S. resources are aimed at securing the Mexican border. Traffickers have grown increasingly aware of these shortcomings and act accordingly by electing to boat the drugs into areas of Puerto Rico’s ill-guarded 700-mile coastline, rather than attempt a difficult land passage across the US/Mexico border.

This shortage of resources is also disturbingly evident to those tasked with intercepting drug traffickers headed towards the territory. The head of U.S. Southern Command, General John F. Kelly, admits that, due to an insufficient allotment of resources and a significant lack of funding, his forces have failed to capture more than eighty percent of the drugs smuggled through Puerto Rico.[11]

Uncle Sam’s Blunder

Ironically, the federal government’s costly obsession with the War on Drugs could be considered a contributing factor affecting the shortage of resources in Puerto Rico. Washington spends more than $51,000,000,000 every year to pay for the War on Drugs.[12] Billions of dollars are used to incarcerate small-time domestic marijuana and cocaine users while an entire commonwealth of almost four million people suffers from a lack of resources to combat serious drug trafficking. Instead, the logical solution would be to use some of these funds to secure Puerto Rico’s borders; however, it appears the federal government fails to consider such an alternative. Washington’s displaced preoccupation with controlling consumption inside the U.S. is resulting in a failure to acknowledge the real issue: the illegal entrance of drugs through the country’s own territory.

This imprudent misallocation of national assets is irrational and wasteful. The War on Drugs is considered by most to be an exhaustive and ineffective anti-drug obsession. Why, then, is our government continuing to spend excessive amounts of money on it? Resources should be redirected away from the current internal War on Drugs, towards the drug issues that have real potential for resolve, such as those in Puerto Rico.

Punishing The Consumer

Beginning with the Nixon administration, the War on Drugs has been responsible for more than forty years of massive government spending, elevated incarceration rates, long-term prison populations, and an increase in drug-related violence and crime. Currently, the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, with over 1.5 million people put in jail this past year on non-violent drug charges.[13] Since 2003, the government budget for drug prevention has been decreasing steadily while funding has increased in favor of local law enforcement playing a greater role in the fight against illicit drug trade and consumption.[14]

A portion of this disparity can in part be attributed to the establishment of thousands of drug courts. These municipalities are proving to be impractical and expensive, largely because they command the use of public courtrooms as well as large staffs of prosecutors, judges, and other officials.[15] The cost to operate drug courts heavily outweighs any special benefits they could potentially generate because the results have failed to prove effective. Those who are considered “drug dependent” oftentimes do not receive the health treatments they need, but are instead punished with incarceration. Additionally, many offenders who find themselves in drug courts are ultimately coerced into pleading guilty, told they will then be eligible for special rehabilitation programs. This practice has long-lasting detrimental results as most of the participants leave court with “criminal records that often act as lifetime barriers to many aspects of social, economic and political life in the U.S.”[16]

Moreover, while some may believe that money apportioned for the drug war emphasizes the prevention of illegal trafficking through the borders of the United States, the reality of the situation is that the domestic law enforcement budget is more than three times the size of the interdiction budget.[17] Evidently, there is a much greater emphasis being placed on punishing the consumer than there is on preventing illegal drugs from entering the country in the first place. Ethan Nadelman, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, asserts that the United States’ punitive policies and prohibition of drugs are doing more harm than good. These beliefs concur with former President Jimmy Carter’s notions that “the harms caused by drug laws should not exceed the harms caused by the drugs themselves.”[18] Unfortunately, this is exactly the case; prison populations continue to expand while drug-related violence worsens and the quantity of smuggled shipments entering the United States is only increasing. The recently emergent shelter role of Puerto Rico in the illegal drug trade serves to depict the unintended detrimental consequences of the War on Drugs.


The paramount question going unaddressed is why the federal government continues to inappropriately misdirect funds that could instead be used to help secure drug trafficking in areas like Puerto Rico. Rather than pursuing a highly contested and costly War on Drugs, the U.S. government should be funneling resources and funds into Puerto Rico to control, if not prevent, the entry of these illegal drugs. This would simultaneously reduce much of the United States’ supply of unlawful substances as well.

In the absence of decriminalization or legalization, the drug traffic trade will certainly continue to exist and prosper in Latin America and the United States. Realistically though, the U.S. government does not have legal jurisdiction over countries in Central and South America, nor does it possess the resources or necessary political clout to combat this drug trafficking. Puerto Rico, however, is formally under U.S. jurisdiction, thereby affirming the federal government’s quasi authority and responsibility to the region.

Based on the reported funds allocated annually to the Federal Drug Control Spending budget, it appears that federal departments such as Homeland Security and the DEA have ample resources to combat drug trafficking through Puerto Rico and improve border security in the territory.[19] However, resources needed at the US/Mexico border understandably take precedence in the eyes of government officials; almost ninety percent of the cocaine in the U.S. comes from Mexico, and violence over the conflict completely overwhelms the region.[20] Still, few funds remain to buttress the protection of Puerto Rican borders and interdiction efforts.

Consequently, the federal government should reconsider its allocation of funds and other resources in an attempt to redirect its focus on the War on Drugs and determine where resources are needed and where they are not. It is evident that internal efforts to combat the War on Drugs are proving ineffective and not up to the job in terms of the national budget and security requirements. Therefore, Washington may find it more beneficial to reduce efforts in fighting internal drug consumption and instead use these resources to aid in Puerto Rican border control and anti-drug trafficking initiatives.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.


[1] Puerto Rico, “Government”, Welcome to Puerto Rico.

[2]Alvarez, Lizette, “In Puerto Rico, Cocaine Gains Access to U.S.”, The New York Times, May 29, 2014

[3] High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area: Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Puerto Rico/U.S. Virgin Island HIDTA”, 2001 Annual Report

[4] American Civil Liberties Union, “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force”, June 2012. 2-3.

[5] CNN Staff, “Puerto Rican police indicted for running ‘criminal organization’,” CNN Justice. May 22, 2014.


[7] Pierluisi, Pedro R. “Statement and Questions as Prepared for Delivery: Oversight of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration”. U.S. House of Representatives, June 20, 2012

[8] Gurney, Kyra, “Anti-Gang Op Highlights Puerto Rico’s Micro-Trafficking Troubles,” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas. June 6, 2014

[9] Alvarez, Lizette

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Drug Policy Alliance, “Drug War Statistics,” Drug Policy Alliance. Accessed June 5, 2014.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Executive Office of the President of the United States, “FY 2015 Funding Highlights,” National Drug Control Budget. March 2014. 2-15.

[15] “Moving Away From Drug Courts”

[16] Ibid.

[17] “FY 2015 Funding Highlights”

[18] Caiger-Smith, William, “Prohibition is more dangerous,” Drug Policy Alliance. June 30, 2009.

[19] “FY 2015 Funding Highlights”

[20] CNN Library, “Mexico Drug War Fast Facts”, CNN World. March 15, 2014.