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#4369: Caribbean drug smugglers turn to small freighters (fwd)


WIRE:06/23/2000 10:23:00 ET
 Caribbean drug smugglers turn to small freighters
MIAMI (Reuters) - Small, rusting freighters from Haiti are  chugging up
 the narrow, winding Miami River into the heart of  this city, often
empty of any cargo except stashes of cocaine welded deep inside their
hulls.Avoiding the bustling seaport to dock instead at quiet  boatyards
on the river,they wait sometimes for weeks for the  chance to          
unload their contraband.  In a drugs war of constantly changing fronts,
the river has  become increasingly active. The trend also highlights
Haiti's  position as a key staging post for narcotics smuggled from 
producer nation Colombia to  consumers in the United States.  Customs
agents in Miami have found cocaine shipments on  board Haitian
freighters more than a dozen times since February,  seizing them before
they could be unloaded.  They have confiscated more than 7,000 pounds of
cocaine off  boats that sailed to Miami from Haiti in  the last nine
months,  three times the amount seized in  all the previous year, 
according to U.S. Customs Service spokesman Zach Mann.  "It's a niche
that the traffickers have found they like,"Brent Eaton, Miami spokesman
for the U.S. Drug  Enforcement  Administration (DEA), said.             
Several factors make the Haiti-Miami route attractive to  smugglers,
federal agents said. Haiti's poverty and  political  chaos make it easy
for traffickers to send  cocaine into remote  Haitian coastal areas by
speedboat and single-engine planes.  "The airdrops take place in a
matter of minutes," said  Mike Vigil, special agent in charge of the
DEA's Caribbean field  division in Puerto Rico. "Even if you
can track them, there's  very little response capability in Haiti."  
 Haitian police lack communications, training,resources and  staff.
Haiti's poor roads make it difficult to reach drop sites.  "What happens
when the drugs get there? Nothing," Mann  said. "There is no capacity to
combat airborne  smuggling and  very little capability to combat
 maritime smuggling. It's become  a playground for the cartels.  
 Additionally, increased U.S. vigilance has choked air routes  from
South America and land routes from Mexico, forcing  smugglers to
increasingly haul their cargo to the United States  via Caribbean
shipping lanes. Once in Haiti the cocaine is trucked overland, either to
the  Dominican Republic, where traffickers send it across the Mona 
Passage into the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, or to northern  Haiti,
especially the Cap Haitien area, and loaded onto  Miami-bound         
freighters, Vigil said.  Federal agents believe much of the cocaine
slips into  the  United States in sealed cargo containers hidden    
among legal  goods. Massive freighters unload 650,000 truck-sized
containers  a year at the Port of Miami alone.  But the small coastal
freighters that ply the Caribbean are  plentiful, cheap and increasingly
favored by smugglers.There are plenty of places to hide the drugs, Mann
said.  After welding hidden compartments into place,smugglers sand  them
down and pour acid over the  welds to make them look old.  Often the
compartments are covered with bilge water.  Once investigators in Miami
find the compartments,they must  sometimes hire marine engineers or put
the ships into dry dock  to open the keels. It is time-consuming and
costly work.  The seized ships are sold at auction, typically without   
objection from owners whose identities are hidden behind shell 
corporations. Crewmen are interviewed and usually deported back  to
Haiti while agents try to  find out who put the drugs aboard  and who
was to retrieve them.  "The people in the boats as a rule, the crewmen,
don't have  a clue," Eaton said.   Those not seized can sit on the Miami
River for weeks as the  crew fills them with old mattresses,
bicycles,plastic water  jugs and other U.S. castoffs welcome in Haiti.
Stolen cars,weapons and dirty cash also make the return trip,
investigators  said."These guys think they can wait us out," said
Mann."There's no urgency to unload anything. We don't have the  manpower
to surveil them seven days a week for weeks on end."