Jamaica: In the Drug Trade—Big and Getting Bigger

Another in a Series of COHA Research Inquiries into the Hemispheric Drug Trade.

With a focus primarily placed on notorious Mexican and South American drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), and the Caribbean’s role as an essential transit mechanism for drugs moving north to market, trade issues often are moved around and made to stay under the radar and out of the news. Jamaican criminal organizations, working for dominant Mexican and Colombian DTOs, use the island as a key passageway and warehouse for drug smuggling to the U.S. Not only is Jamaica an important pit stop for the trafficking of Colombian cocaine, South American heroin, and Mexican marijuana, but it is also the Caribbean’s leading producer and exporter of marijuana. As corruption and organized crime have become a serious impediment to judicial efforts aimed to curb the flow of illegal substances and laundered funds, Jamaican officials are working closely with their U.S. counterparts to initiate and fortify counter-drug legislation and procedures in hopes of cutting illegal narcotic-related activities on the island. Even so, the efforts exerted by Jamaica and its regional allies in fighting the drug problem have not yielded entirely satisfactory results. The fact is that Washington almost seems to be conspiring to understate the island’s key role in the drug trade for other benefits, including in the field of foreign policies. In the recent past this may have meant supporting the U.S.’s controversial Haiti policies or U.S. strategy in the O.A.S.

Jamaica as “The Middle Man”
With 638 miles of coastline, over 100 unmonitored airstrips, and an open ocean for go-fast vessels, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has declared Jamaica a major transit location for illegal narcotics, transported either via way-stations located on Jamaica or moved up to the Bahamas, and then directly to U.S. and European markets. DTOs usually conceal the merchandise in commercial shipments or private planes, but inhumane methods involving the use of couriers, known as mules, have become a common practice. Couriers board airlines or cruise ships having ingested as many as 100 cocaine filled condoms for concealment. According to U.S. Customs, more than 63 percent of all arrests at U.S. airports for cocaine possession involved passengers on flights from Jamaica. The sluggish growth of the Jamaican economy and a high rate of unemployment allows DTOs—especially those from Colombia— to take advantage of impoverished Jamaican families. These economically marginalized islanders (the majority of whom are women seeking quick money to feed their families), are lured by their potential earnings to be a courier. The problem with the utilization of couriers, as Lord Harris of the Metropolitan Police Authority in London explains, is that “as far as the drug barons are concerned, the women who do this are totally expendable – that’s the really dreadful part of this trade.” As one report states, a woman was told by traffickers to swallow over 160 condoms filled with cocaine en route to London, perhaps unaware that a rupture in any one of the condoms would almost certainly result in her death.

The Problem At Home
Jamaican officials are better able to control those smuggling marijuana abroad as compared to exporting cocaine, due to a far more advanced international cartel system servicing the latter. Recently, this has translated to increased cocaine shipments from the island. In 2006, local cocaine smugglers altered their methods of transportation to U.S.-bound destinations because of pressure from the authorities and intensified interception of shipments coming from Mexico and South America. According to the Department of State, the volume of cocaine going to Jamaica from such locations was believed to be decreasing in 2005, but turned around the following year. Seizures of cocaine within Jamaica fell from 152.85 kg in 2005 to 109 kg in 2006, evidence of the increasingly sophisticated methods used by big Mexican and Colombian cartels to protect their valuable merchandise.

Even as the Caribbean’s largest producer and exporter of cannabis, Jamaican marijuana smuggling offers a different perspective regarding the drug trade. Jamaican cannabis production and export involves a home-grown product and a relatively less complex drug organization. Those involved have not been particularly successful in evading the government. Marijuana seizures sky rocketed from 19,777 kg in 2005 to 59,771 kg in 2006, and areas of cultivation raided by the authorities have increased from 423 hectares to 524 hectares respectively. Although authorities have been somewhat successful, a prevalent problem continues to be the connection between Jamaican marijuana traffickers and those trafficking cocaine. The former often trade their product to cocaine traffickers in exchange for funds later used to finance their organizations and to buy weapons and inventory.

Drug Trafficking Attracts Other Illegal Activities
David Muirhead, the Jamaican High Commissioner in London, has stated that, “the Government of Jamaica recognizes the serious problem of drug trafficking and has placed great emphasis upon and resources into tackling it.” One of the major problems of the drug trade is that one of its most effective tools is the use of weapons and violence. With a population of approximately 2.7 million people, Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2004 alone, there were 1,471 murders, which increased to 1,674 in 2005, slightly decreasing to 1,340 in 2006 as a result of new legislation. The drugs smuggled to Jamaica from South America or Mexico (guns often included in the cargo) contributes to the eruption of violence.

Weapons trafficking between islands is also very common. There are many reports of drug smugglers from Haiti trading sophisticated guns for marijuana and cocaine; such weaponry eventually finds its way to the streets and into the hands of criminals. In a recent report, the World Bank declared that crime in the Caribbean, most importantly in Jamaica, is “undermining growth, threatening human welfare, and impeding social development.”

Another problem derived from drug trafficking in Jamaica is the domestic consumption of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and (recently) ecstasy, substances now readily available to the public, including to the island’s youth. The increasing use of drugs has raised many urban areas such as Kingston and Montego Bay to become places to avoid because of their violent atmosphere. The U.S. Embassy in Jamaica warns American tourists to stay away from inner-city locations as they may be in danger of falling victim to theft or violent confrontations with the local criminals. With tourism accounting for the island’s largest source of foreign exchange, the violence resulting from drug trafficking is greatly affecting the overall growth potential of this key sector of the island’s economy.

Kingston’s Reaction
Corruption, the undermining of law enforcement, and efforts to combat crime, are major hurdles to ending the spread of illegal activities. In a recent U.S. Department of State report, the National Security Minister of Jamaica is quoted as saying “there is no doubt that we have suffered from the confluence of criminality and politics. Violence became an element too closely linked with political life and that brought unsavory elements into the political process.” Even with the Jamaican government’s policy of investigating credible reports of public corruption, there has been no prosecution of high-profile government officials with connections to the drug cartels or violent organizations in the past 12 months.

Although Kingston has been relatively unsuccessful in aggressively carrying forth its battle against corruption, the Jamaica Constabulary Forces (JCF) has achieved a 16 percent reduction in crime through its zero-tolerance policy. Even with a 200 percent increase in cannabis seizures in 2006 alone, the success of the JCF and Jamaica Defense Force (JDF) continues to be hampered by internal venality.

Under the Corruption Prevention Act currently being reviewed by the Parliament, Jamaica’s Commission for the Prevention of Corruption will be granted more sweeping powers consistent with Jamaica’s commitments under the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption. In order for Kingston to be successful on the crime front, analysts believe that it would be wise for it to first clean up its internal affairs.

U.S.-Jamaican Alliance
The Jamaican government’s efforts to completely gain control of the bustling drug activity and the negative side effects experienced by the country from it are not enough to effectively combat the trafficking problem. The U.S. and Jamaica are closely allied on the enforcement of anti-drug laws and the seizure of narcotics destined for the U.S. Operation Kingfish, a multinational task force involving the governments of Jamaica, the U.S., the UK, and Canada was initiated in October 2004 and continued through December 2006 with significant success. From the 1,378 operations launched, 57 boats, 56 vehicles, 206 firearms, and one aircraft have been seized by officials. The operation is also responsible for the interception of over 13 metric tons of cocaine and over 27,390 pounds of compressed marijuana, suggesting at least a small victory in the fight against the drug cartels.

To further these efforts, the U.S. and Jamaica also established the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) and a bilateral law enforcement agreement aimed at stopping the transit of illegal drugs by sea. Moreover, Jamaica is also part of the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, the Cooperating Nation Information Exchange System, the Caribbean Regional Maritime Counter-drug Agreement, and the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Along with participation in these anti-drug initiatives, the Joint Jamaica-United States Maritime Cooperation Agreement allows partner nations to share in monitoring maritime zones, providing more flexibility in fighting the drug war at sea.

A Willing Government
During 2007, the U.S. is scheduled to further strengthen ties with Jamaica, and with added support from the UK and Canada, JCF and JDF units will have more funding available to them. Indicating some degree of dissatisfaction with Jamaica’s performance, Washington has laid down benchmarks which Kingston will have to meet if U.S. assistance is to continue to flow. According to the State Department, Washington now insists that, within the coming year, Jamaica must detain at least two major cocaine shipments, arrest at least one major figure within an international DTO, and take important steps in reforming the Jamaica Constabulary Force. With Jamaica’s willing participation in the fight against drugs and, most importantly, its close alliance with the U.S. government, improvement may be possible. The problem is that, despite all the anti-drug reforms, violence does not seem to be abating throughout the island, with Jamaica maintaining one of the highest murder rates in the world, hampering its economic and social growth. Ultimately, Jamaica’s close bond to the U.S. may be all form and little substance because, in fact, the country’s anti-drug forces have been overwhelmed by the corruption, intimidation, and violence seen throughout the island.