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Illicit guns and drugs are a problem in the Caribbean. This legislation is offering help

Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Tim Kaine of Virginia are putting their weight behind an initiative to reduce illicit arms trafficking and strengthen security and stability in the Caribbean basin, where an uptick in guns and migration trafficking are endangering small island communities and raising national security concerns for the United States.

The proposed Caribbean Basin Security Initiative Authorization Act, which passed the House of Representatives last April, has found support from Rubio, a Republican, and Kaine, a Democrat, in the Senate. The two are sponsoring the bipartisan and bicameral legislation.

The bill would authorize appropriations of $74.8 million each year in foreign assistance. The funds would go to promoting the rule of law in the Caribbean; reducing trafficking in narcotics, weapons, bulk cash, and other contraband,and reducing corruption and the influence of authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. Money also is to be used to “counter malign influence from authoritarian regimes, including China, Iran, Cuba, and Russia,” according to the bill.

The proposed legislation also says that money is to be used to strengthen the ability of beneficiary countries to prepare for and respond to natural disasters, and to increase regional coordination and collaboration between beneficiary countries and Haiti.

Rubio, in promoting the bill, specifically cited the destabilizing gang violence in Haiti, which he says demonstrates the serious threat that corruption and drug trafficking poses to Caribbean countries.

“At a time in which our region faces enormous challenges and hardships, it’s important the United States government assist our democratic allies to counter drug trafficking, prevent gang-related violence, and conduct criminal investigations,” Rubio said in a statement.

Kaine said promoting stability and cooperation in the Caribbean strengthens the United States’ own national security, and counters the Chinese Communist Party’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere.

“Making these resources available to help counter drug trafficking, corruption, and the destabilizing impacts of climate change is a commonsense step, and I urge my colleagues to join us in working to make the Western Hemisphere safer and more prosperous for all,” he said.

Through its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, the United States already currently provides some assistance with security to nations such as Haiti where it’s training a new SWAT team and helping to strengthen the Haiti National Police. However, those efforts often fall short, as highlighted by a newly published Government Accountability Office report on the U.S. government’s efforts to help Haiti rebuild after its devastating 2010 earthquake.

U.S. activities to help the Haiti National Police achieved mixed results, auditors found. One example they highlighted focused on drug trafficking busts. The report said that counternarcotics agents only “disrupted one significant drug trafficking organization in Haiti, falling short of the target of disrupting at least three such organizations by September 2018.”

“The HNP counternarcotics unit conducted one joint operation with the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration outside of Port-au-Prince during the activity’s final year, which did not meet the target for the unit to organize and coordinate at least four large-scale operations annually,” the report added.

The lack of cocaine seizures, in particular in Haiti, a major transshipment point for U.S.-bound cocaine from Colombia, has long raised concerns and questions about the role drug trafficking has played in the country’s ongoing chaos, which deepened after the July 7, 2021, assassination of its unpopular and controversial president, Jovenel Moïse.


Caribbean governments want more U.S. assistance

Caribbean governments have long complained that given their proximity to the U.S., the country can do more to help them stem the tide of violence and rising crime. This has especially become an issue in light of Haiti’s ongoing collapse and an increasing wave of migrants from Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela coming to U.S. shores.

While a top tourism destination, the Caribbean has also become a top smuggling destination for U.S.-made guns. Since 2020, the region has accounted for half of all firearms-export investigations by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which collaborates with other federal agencies, including Homeland Security Investigations.

Last week, the Seventh Coast Guard District and the State Department hosted Caribbean leaders and law enforcement representatives from The Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the United Kingdom, along with federal partners, for a three-day summit in Miami to discuss regional security interests. During the inaugural Northern Caribbean Security Summit, participants agreed on the need for greater strategic coordination, training to achieve improved interoperability, and the sharing of intelligence information to counter transnational criminal organizations that traffic migrants, drugs, arms and money.

“We are at a difficult geographical crossroads between many Caribbean nations suffering serious problems: Guns from the U.S., drugs from the region, significant irregular migration, the movement of criminals on fast boats all impact on us,” Nigel Dakin, the British-appointed governor of the Turk and Caicos Islands, told the Miami Herald.

“And of course the collapse of Haiti is particularly troubling for a territory 100 nautical miles from it and with extended archipelago borders,” he said. “As a small island we are stronger together and that’s why this conference was so important to us and why we are so very grateful to our allies —the U.S. and the Bahamas.”

The British-dependent territory has been in an alliance with the U.S. Coast Guard and The Bahamas for some time to protect its maritime borders. As a result of the cooperation, a U.S. surveillance aircraft is currently based there with support from the United Kingdom and U.S. agents in the territory.

“Given the collapse of Haiti, the extraordinary uptick in migrant boats leaving their shores, this is existential for (Turks and Caicos) and the result of this conference hugely important,” Dakin told residents last week as he updated them on the country’s participation in the Miami summit.

Last year, the island saw itself leading international headlines as the number of murders doubled and the territory became the region’s deadliest country per capita, with 35 homicides. When you have a small population, roughly 45,000 residents, “a very small number of criminals can significantly influence this pro-rata number,” Dakin said.

“Many of the murders occurred over a two-month period and we moved rapidly and successfully to suppress that gang violence through a combination of reinforcing our Tactical Firearms Unit with police from The Bahamas, an excellent U.K. mentored and TCI-owned intelligence operation coming on stream plus now significant reinforcement of our Investigative cadre by U.K. detectives,” he said.

A gang leader in Turks and Caicos was shot dead by police while resisting arrest, another is in police custody and a number of their associates arrested or gone to ground. Since then matters are far calmer, the governor said.

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