Border agents seize $4.2 million in cocaine, notice shifting smuggling patterns

US Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operations agents seized 328 pounds of cocaine from a vessel near Puerto Rico on November 15, in what is the latest sign that traffickers may be returning to once popular Caribbean smuggling routes.

A CBP DHC-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft picked up a small, wooden "yola" vessel traveling eastward about 8 miles west of Desecheo Island, off the western coast of Puerto Rico.

CBP vessels were deployed to intercept the suspect boat, and agents observed two men on board the small wooden ship take packages from a cooler and toss them overboard.

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Agents reached the vessel and arrested the two men. A search uncovered two compartments on the boat loaded with bricks of what tested positive for cocaine.

Agents also recovered the two bricks thrown into the water, and the total haul amounted to 328 pounds of cocaine with an estimated value of $4.2 million.

This seizure comes less than a month after CBP agents intercepted a similar vessel near Puerto Rico carrying 283 pounds of cocaine worth $3.6 million, and the two incidents appear to be the latest high-value seizure events.

Drug-smuggling routes through the Caribbean and into the southeastern US — South Florida in particular — were heavily trafficked in the 1980s, contributing to an upswing in drug violence in that part of the state.

Those trafficking corridors fell in popularity as enforcement efforts increased, and traffickers moved to sea and land routes in Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

But a number of US officials have warned that the smuggling pendulum would swing back to the eastern routes through the Caribbean, and recent seizures would seem to confirm an increase in such activity.

In 2014, US officials estimated that the proportion of drugs shipped through the Caribbean had tripled, with the amount of cocaine traveling through the region increasing from 5 percent of the total to 16 percent. The then-head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean division, Vito Salvatore Guarino, estimated that smugglers moved 90 to 100 tons through the region, more than the about 70 tons of previous years.

According to the CBP, during Fiscal Year 2015, which ran October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015, there were 49 drug seizures like the November 16 one in the Caribbean. During Fiscal Year 2016, which ended September 30, that type of seizure nearly doubled, hitting 95.

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According to US Foreign Military Studies Office data, 80 percent of drugs smuggled into the US in 2012 came via maritime routes, and 30 percent of the drugs that came to the US by sea were carried on narco subs — though given criminal control of parts of western Colombia and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, it's likely that narco subs will continue to ply the US's western approaches, and recent narco-sub seizures have occurred in the Pacific.

In spite of that trend, however, most of the cocaine getting to the US still travels through Mexico via Central America. The DEA said in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment that 87 percent of the cocaine flowing to the US came through that area, while just 13 percent traveled through the Caribbean.

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