Resident Commissioner Jennifer González-Colón (NPP, R) of Puerto Rico and Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D) of the US Virgin Islands introduced the Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy Act in the House of Representatives in February with the hope of reducing narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean. Senators Rick Scott (R) of Florida and Alex Padilla (D) of California introduced the bill in the Senate.
Efforts to bolster Caribbean security have increased after a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent died in a shootout with a suspected drug smuggler off the Puerto Rican coast in November. The Air and Marine Operations unit encountered the smugglers off the coast from Cabo Rojo in the Mona Passage, a major drug smuggling corridor for cocaine coming out of South America between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. In recent months, CBP has conducted several operations, including seizing 99 pounds of cocaine below a vessel arriving in San Juan, detaining smugglers with 2,351 pounds of cocaine in Southern Puerto Rico, discovering 877 pounds of cocaine within cargo on the San Juan-Santo Domingo ferry, and seizing 2,262 pounds of cocaine in Southeastern Puerto Rico just this year alone. Over the last year in the US Virgin Islands, CBP intercepted a vessel with over 1,400 pounds of cocaine and seized an airplane connected to drug smuggling.
The Act aims to stop illegal drug trafficking from the Caribbean that ends up in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Florida. González-Colón said, “drug trafficking in the Caribbean represents a major security threat to the United States. Nowhere is this risk more apparent than in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, where the illicit activities of drug smugglers operating in the region fuel most of the violent crime we see in our streets and communities.” Plaskett added that “the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, along with the remainder of the Caribbean and South America are gateways for international drug trafficking. The Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy Act is the natural next step in our country’s efforts to understand and effectively combat the ongoing threat of Caribbean drug trafficking.”
Specific provisions within the bill include ensuring the federal government has a strategy to prevent the flow of illicit drugs through the Caribbean region and into the United States by requiring the Office of National Drug Control Policy to issue a Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy. The required strategy would include measures to combat drug trafficking and drug-related violent crime in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, along with recommendations for assistance and authorities needed by federal, territorial, and local law enforcement. The bill also amends the Office’s authorization, including US territories within the text and revising the definition of “supply reduction” to ensure strategies include tackling financial networks of drug trafficking organizations.
Within the same press release, Scott said, “every day that passes with a wide open border, deadly drugs like fentanyl are pouring into our country and killing our fellow Americans. […] To truly combat the threats it poses, we must attack it at every source. [The Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy Act] is critical legislation to combat illegal narcotics operations, like fentanyl trafficking, which are destroying lives in Florida, Puerto Rico, and across the United States. American families, especially those who have lost loved ones to fentanyl and other deadly drugs, deserve to know that the government is working on a plan to combat this crisis and hold traffickers accountable.” Padilla echoed Scott’s sentiments, highlighting, “Drug overdoses have reached an all-time high in the United States, and it is incumbent on Congress to find solutions to address this epidemic. Drug trafficking puts countless lives at risk, contributing to drug abuse and overdoses.”
As the bill awaits committee action in Congress, González-Colón has highlighted other CBP actions, including the expansion of federal security facilities in Puerto Rico. The Air and Marines Operations unit broke ground on a new facility for the Mayaguez Marine Unit recently, as CBP “continues to upgrade and modernize its operating locations.” The new facility will comprise administrative operations buildings, a boat maintenance and storage hangar, and new security systems. The project, with an $18 million budget, will be completed by the spring of 2024. González-Colón, who attended the groundbreaking, said, “I am pleased that CBP continues to expand their capabilities on the islands, being one of the most fundamental federal agencies to combat drug trafficking and criminal threats in Puerto Rico. And not only that but by doing this, it, in turn, protects the rest of the nation by safeguarding the Caribbean basin from drug trafficking organizations and other illicit practices.”