COHA Report: Another in a Series of Reports on Drugs, Terror and Criminality in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Growing Criminality Along With the Advent of The ‘Terror” Factor in the Caribbean
In the past, matters of U.S. concern with the Caribbean have been related to stepped up flows of illegal northbound immigration as well as the region’s ominous role as an emerging major portal for incoming narcotics from South America and Mexico. However, most recently, the Caribbean Basin now has achieved a much darker silhouette because of its connection to Russell Desfreitas, the Guyanese-American who was indicted last month for his role in leading a group of Trinidadians in a plot to attack the fuel supply system at John F Kennedy Airport in New York City. The charges brought against Desfreitas and his co-conspirators have made Trinidad and the Caribbean, at least temporarily, a new venue requiring increased U.S. vigilance in its ongoing struggle against international terror.

Drugs and Terror – An Explosive Mixture
Whether or not the Desfreitas plot was simply the result of personal antipathy against a U.S. foe, or an incipient manifestation of growing international terror networks that today are involving the Caribbean and South America among other areas, is still on the docket. After some examination, however, Desfreitas was found to have relations with Jumaat al Musileem, a shady Islamic extremist band based in Trinidad. The rumored connection to a malignant Muslim sect could be bad news for the Caribbean, which already has won for itself the unfriendly reputation of being a murder hotspot as a result of an increasingly criminalized environment. According to a recent study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, the Basin today features the highest murder rate in Latin America, at 30 per 100,000 people, as compared to 26 per 100,000 in the rest of Latin America, and 7 per 100,000 in the U.S. The report also asserts that such high rates of violence and criminal activity are developmental-related issues, “undermining growth, threatening human welfare, and impeding social development.” To compound this negative evaluation, after 9/11, the Caribbean has been heavily scrutinized by counter-terrorist experts due to its admittedly large Islamic population and its admittedly exiguous connections to notorious Middle Eastern terror networks like al-Qaeda.

The Drug Situation
Compared to South America’s most notorious drug trafficking networks that are linked to core areas like The Chapare in Bolivia and Putumayo, Colombia, the Caribbean has been characterized as discharging a comparatively insignificant role. This may be changing however, as the area plays host to some of the Hemisphere’s most hardened criminals who are connected not only to major drug trafficking organizations like the FARC and Sendero Luminoso, but also to actual or potential terrorist conspirators like Desfreitas, who could pose a real terrorist threat to the Hemisphere. But even more to the point, the concentration of drug-related activity in the Caribbean has been continually understated in the recent past, particularly (strangely enough) by U.S. anti-drug authorities.

The Bahamas for example, despite their reputation as a tourist’s paradise, is slightly less well known for their high criminal ranking, and whose volume of drug-related activity is sufficiently menacing to worry Washington’s security agencies, particularly the DEA. The State Department reports that the country’s 700 islands and cays make it geographically suitable for hosting exactly the kind of transportation and infrastructure mix that criminals desire to expedite their trafficking operations. In 2005 it was reported by the Drug Enforcement Unit (DEU) in the Bahamas, that 840 kilograms of cocaine and 9.0 metric tons of marijuana had been confiscated. Demonstrably, this is a matter that is hardly specific only to the Bahamas.

For its part, the U.S. has made some effort to cope with the phenomenon of maritime-based criminality in the region. In the past, Caribbean-area governments have coordinated with the U.S. through “shiprider” agreements, in which local government officials attempt to police their territorial waters scattered throughout the Caribbean. These pacts allow for U.S. Coast Guard units and other U.S. personnel to board suspect ships found in the maritime jurisdiction of a given island. This process can only be triggered if there is a national from that given island aboard the Coast Guard vessel engaged in the boarding process. The procedure not only helps to intercept narcotics traffic, but also makes it difficult for the trafficker to hide. Still, these agreements have played a minimal role in combating drug trafficking, and the Miami branch of the DEA has not invoked them on numerous occasions, proving again that the U.S. war on drugs has more bark than bite in it when it comes to drug apprehension as well as prevention.

Current U.S.-Caribbean Sentiment
While the proliferation of drugs in the Caribbean is an ongoing problem that the U.S. needs to continually address, a more pressing matter is the growth of possible terror cells in the region which may bring the U.S. to another heightened, if self-indulgent phase of “for us, or against us” policies regarding international terrorism. Conseqently, the increased vigilance could generate new pressure on the inter-American relationship, and for the Caribbean, the unfortunate connection of Desfreitas to the region will unwittingly drag the immediate area, at least temporarily, into the steamy realm of international terror.

For all of the region’s negative publicity in recent years – much of it drug-related – present relations between the U.S. and the Caribbean remain healthy, if minimal. At the June 20th Caribbean Summit in Washington, Patrick Manning and other island leaders met with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss issues related to the Caribbean diaspora in the U.S. as well as an expansion and deepening of CARICOM’s relations with this country. CaribNews reported Elsworth John, St. Lucia’s Ambassador to the U.S., as saying, “this is about partnerships. We are seeking to establish a new paradigm with the Diaspora, the hundreds of thousands of people from the Caribbean who live and work across the United States.” This discussion may have seemed delicate at the time, given the nature of Desfreitas and his clan’s reported trips between New York and Trinidad, but those closely involved on both sides of the table refrained from addressing the Desfreitas issue. Mr. Young added that, “If it [the JFK plot] does come up, it would be brief, we don’t see it as a big deal.”

The Desfreitas Plan
Desfreitas’ plan, which involved three other accomplices, Kareem Ibrahim, Abdel Nur, and former Guyana Parliamentary member Abdul Kadir, was to blow up the JFK’s jet fuel tanks and their feeder pipelines which extend 40 miles from Linden, NJ through Brooklyn and Staten Island. Undoubtedly, the plot possibly would have ended tragically had the FBI not been involved in what became a sting operation against Desfreitas. This involved an FBI informant who taped the would-be conspirator’s conversations. While the plot never reached beyond an initial planning phase, Desfreitas was well aware of his surroundings at JFK, having been employed at the facility, and U.S. authorities were equally well informed of the plot and the fact that Desfreitas had been surveying the airport’s pipelines a number of days before his arrest.

Still, the break up of the plot, however early in the gang’s planning stage, must be a bittersweet moment for the U.S. intelligence community, which now, at least in the minds of the FBI, the CIA and their counterparts, have a potentially new lethal foe in the form of peripheral terror branches which would have their natural bases in the well over 4 million-strong Latin American Islamic communities. In Brazil and Argentina alone, there is a combined population of 2.5 million Latino-Muslims, while Trinidad and Tobago alone is home to 100,000 of them. It is the latter figure that most concerns U.S. counter-terrorist experts. It has been Desfreitas’ said connection to Trinidad’s Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of the Islamic militant group in Trinidad, that has made the investigation all the more vital for U.S. intelligence and because of Bakr’s acknowledged relationship to al-Qaeda heavy hitter Adnan el Shukrijumah, who has met with Caribbean militants on different occasions.

Patterns of Islamist Extremism in the Caribbean and Central America
Since September 11, 2001, the concern for the development of new and existing terror networks in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean as well as the tri-border area of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, have become a matter of some priority for the CIA and FBI. Washington is known to believe that there are reasonable incentives for such groups to be in the region, particularly given its close proximity to the U.S. In their estimate, what makes the environment so hospitable to these networks is the fact that in many cases a mixture of poor social conditions and border issues provide them with the habitat and leeway that they normally would need to carry out functions that would otherwise be much more difficult to handle in better developed areas.

The possible expansion of Hezbollah and al-Qaeda in the Caribbean came to the attention of U.S. intelligence in June 2004, when the aforementioned Adnan G. El-Shukrijumah, was seen in Honduras. Born in Saudi Arabia, Shukrijumah has since been described by the FBI as becoming al-Qaeda’s next Muhamed Atta, one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 hijackings. Both men were educated in the United States, and like Atta, Shukrijumah is said to have been trained by some of al-Qaeda’s top operatives. At the time of his sighting in Central America, U.S. intelligence believed that he had been involved with two of South America’s premier gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, and Mara 18th St. (M18) which are represented heavily throughout Central America, and permeate Trinidad’s relatively large Muslim population. This finding is compounded by the fact that al-Qaeda has acknowledged success in efforts to recruit Caribbean Muslims.

A second clue came in July of the same year, when Egyptian national Ashraf Ahmad Abdullah, was arrested in Miami for his role in an illegal immigration operation whereby Egyptians were entering into the U.S. after passing through a hub in Guatemala utilized to gain false entry permits and to satisfy other requirements. Intelligence officials believe that this was a conduit for terrorist networks in Egypt, and was used to deploy their operatives to the U.S.

The Case of Trinidad
One of the major reasons why Trinidad and Tobago has become a hotspot for Islamic growth is that the island is covered with natural gas and oil reserves. Its energy exports represent one-quarter of its entire GDP, and consequently they have made it the Caribbean’s most affluent island. In recent years it has been the Hemisphere’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment, behind Canada.

Conveniently situated in the Gulf of Paria, and within a mere 100 miles of Venezuela’s North-Eastern coast, the islands have become home to dozens of small Middle Eastern energy companies as well as an array of small-to-medium sized electronics businesses around the Port of Spain. The irony in this relationship is that liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and tankers, the transport system utilized by maritime oil exporters like Trinidad, are easy targets for terrorists. The latter can readily hijack the vessels for reasons of extortion or threaten to scuttle a tanker at some strategic shipping location.

Because so much of the international focus on maritime terrorism and marine-oil transport is generally directed toward the Malacca Straits, (the world’s most vulnerable marine-oil geographic resource), other germane members of the international gas and oil community in the Caribbean, such as Trinidad and the Bahamas, have been given much less attention. Still, the U.S. receives 75 percent of all of its LNG imports from Trinidad, which have doubled in the last ten years and are expected to jump to 10 percent of the country’s total gas input by 2010. In light of this information, it is fair to say that vulnerable giant LNG tankers are undoubtedly a priority, or someday will be for international terrorists. Given this scenario, it almost seems ironic that the targets of Desfreitas and his Caribbean gang were the relatively prosaic oil and gas pipelines fueling JFK, – their plan could have been triggered much closer to home with far more thundering consequences.

Jamaat al Musileem and Abu Bakr
For all the vibrant culture and tourist activity that characterizes Trinidad, the island is deeply aware of its violent Muslim sect, the Jamaat al Musileem, which in 1990, failed in an attempted armed coup against the island’s Parliament, in which there were casualties. To the misfortune of the island’s growing Muslim population, Jamaat al Musileem continues its menacing activity today by antagonizing Trinidadians of Indian origin, while most likely being involved in deleterious drug and gang operations. The organization’s leader, the aforementioned Yasin Abu Bakr, assumed direction of the group in the 1980s and has since become a long-lasting fringe figure on the island’s political scene.

In the 2001 and 2002 elections, Bakr campaigned for the People’s National Movement (PNM), and successfully snagged several seats in the Trinidadian legislature. Since then, he has been involved in a number of violent incidents, including being implicated in several serious crimes. Yet, the Trinidadian government has been unable to arrest, let alone indict him on threats by Jamaat al Musileem to harm government officials or even try to topple the present administration of Patrick Manning. Coincidentally, Bakr is also one of the island’s wealthiest citizens and owns several million-dollar properties. Desfreitas and some of the others charged in the alleged conspiracy were in Trinidad in April to meet with Bakr, most likely in an effort to gain financing and approval for their operations.

Another entity posing a potential threat is Waajihatul Islaamiyyah (The Islamic Front). The group has close associations with more renowned organizations such as Jamaat al Murabiteen (the group responsible for the Bali Beachfront bombings of 2005). Waajihatul Islaamiyyah has expressed its desire to create an Islamic state inside Trinidad. More chilling, however, is its professed admiration for Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, as disturbing as it may be to acknowledge such a potentially explosive terrorist ingredient, Trinidad’s religious freedom is safely guaranteed under its constitution, as demonstrated by the fact that the government subsidizes both religious and public schools.

Current Trinidadian Initiatives Against Islamic Extremism
As a result of the proliferation of pro-Islamic and possibly violent groups in Trinidad, the island has implemented a new and aggressive minister of national security, in the appointment of Senator Martin Joseph. It has also installed law enforcement units, which are specialized in anti-terrorism tactics, and a corresponding Joint Operations Command Center to deal with any issues of criminal activity in the nearby Caribbean Sea, like the kind that could jeapordize major LNG transporters. Unfortunately, this may not be enough to stop the expansion of terrorist activity in the Caribbean. Trinidad, for example, could be just one link in a growing chain of international terror branches buried in relatively obscure areas of the Caribbean and elsewhere in Latin America, that could provide the necessary infrastructure and freedom of movement that would-be terrorists require. Despite present U.S. reliance on international energy carriers such as LNG tankers, the type of fundamentalist threat posed by Desfreitas may shift U.S. tankers to alternate energy sources that provide greater security in carrying out the nation’s shipping requirements as well as U.S. energy needs.

Considerations for the U.S
It is important to consider that Latin America provides a unique geographical space for terrorists to operate because of the region’s close proximity to the U.S., but also because of the area’s relatively lose safety regulations and the enormous amount of territory involved. In particular, given the current absence of any effective border policy between Latin America and the U.S., there is huge incentive for potential terrorists to branch out in their operations in Central America as well as the Caribbean where there is less policing taking place regarding oil and gas transportation among the island nations.

While the region has never struggled with international terrorism like the kind that destroyed the World Trade Center, and threatened JFK, it has dealt with domestic terror for decades. The concern for the State Department is that this pattern may shift. Its fear is that events like the last one mentioned could in the future fuel potential terrorists to advance their cause in the region, or perhaps even permanently relocate some of their operations to areas with growing Islamic populations that potentially harbor would-be terrorists and could serve as bases for operations.