Caribbean Security Assessment
Most people’s view of the Caribbean and its more than 7,000 individual islands is that of a tropical paradise: blue seas, white sand beaches, and palm trees. To some extent this is accurate, but what most tourists and visitors either don’t see or are prevented from seeing is the real situation.
The Caribbean has always been and continues to be a haven for organized crime, smugglers and pirates. Historically the islands have traded amongst themselves and what is classed as drug trafficking routes today are nothing more than the old trade routes. The contraband used to be rum and tobacco; nowadays it has been replaced by drugs, firearms and dirty money.
In many ways the methods used by the traffickers today are pretty much the same as they were in the 1700s, what has changed is the designs of the boats they use and the inclusion of light aircraft. The multitude of islands in the Caribbean have the same porous borders they had 300 years ago.
What has changed greatly, even in the past few decades is the economy within the Caribbean. It is now largely based on tourism, which is not a stable industry, instead of agriculture. The tourism within the Caribbean can be negatively affected by various factors from many different angles: natural disasters, hurricanes, high-crime, terrorism, increases in aviation fuel prices or difficulties in the home economies of the tourists themselves.
In addition to tourism, many of the islands have ventured into the offshore financial sector which in some locations is booming. The US and some European countries are critical of the offshore banking and financial service sectors in the Caribbean due to their excessive secrecy and lack of transparency which raise money laundering concerns. But what is the alternative for these countries since their traditional industries, like agriculture, have disappeared?
Also, what a lot of tourists and visitors don’t see from their all-inclusive resorts and luxury villas is the high rate of unemployment and poverty that plague many of the islands. Such matters could be a major destabilizing factor in the future.
In this short article, we aim to educate readers by highlighting some of the issues within the Caribbean as well as offer suggestions on how to ensure stability in a potentially unstable region.
Typically, when human trafficking is discussed, most of the focus is the wellbeing of the supposed victims. The very real threat of terrorists or organized criminals mixing in with those being trafficked is ignored. The Islands within the Caribbean are vulnerable to all types of trafficking due to their penetrable borders and lack of maritime security infrastructure. The general understanding of human trafficking within Latin American and the Caribbean is that those being trafficked have the goal of reaching the United States. However, many are seeking to establish themselves in the Caribbean.
Human Trafficking is a gateway crime. Initially, those being trafficked will have to pay for their passage to their country of choice. For example, the current rates for Haitians wanting to be trafficked to say Dominica is $5000.00 USD. In addition to their human cargos, many of the boats are also carrying drugs and firearms.
The economic impact of human trafficking also needs to be taken into consideration. In many areas throughout the Caribbean there are communities of immigrants who have entered illegally, have established themselves, took jobs from the locals and send most of their earnings back to their home countries rather than reinvesting in the local economy. This, in turn, has a negative effect on the overall economy of the host country.
On many Islands throughout the Caribbean, it is possible for illegal immigrants and those with money to buy the documents required to obtain residency and work permits in the countries of their choice. In one location we will not name in order to protect our source’s security, passports are issued to illegal immigrants, for a fee from their embassy and they are then directed to corrupt local immigration officials who will stamp their new passports with the required visas etc. From an international security perspective, this means criminals can assume new identities, access passports, and travel documents. Immigration officials and those that can influence the immigration processes are prime targets for criminals and organized crime groups to try to corrupt.
Many of those being trafficked are far from being the innocent victims they like to portray to law enforcement and the media when they are caught. Throughout the Caribbean women from the Dominican Republic are renowned for setting up prostitution rings. The Venezuelan gangs that are spreading out over the region are bringing with them drugs, kidnapping, and violence.
As we said earlier, human trafficking is a gateway crime that brings with it criminals who seek to establish themselves and exploit the communities they embed themselves in.
According to the United Nations, illegal drug trafficking within the Caribbean is an industry worth $3.3 billion U.S. dollars annually. Cocaine from South America flows into the Caribbean from Venezuela and Guyana via sea and air to be sold in the Islands or transported to the US and Europe. Marijuana grown within the Caribbean is traded internally amongst the Islands and also to drug traffickers from Venezuela etc. in exchange for cocaine, firearms, and ammunition.
Illegal drugs are easily transported around the Caribbean on a multitude of maritime vessels ranging from fishing boats, oil tankers and freighters to luxury yachts that roam between the Islands. The issues for Customs Services and Coast Guards are to try to identify suspicious vessels and then conduct thorough searches with limited resources and time. Illegal drug shipments into Europe, the U.S. and Africa are also facilitated via commercial maritime vessels and private yachts.
In addition to concealing illegal drugs on maritime vessels and amongst their cargo the drug gangs also use human “mules” that swallow capsules of drugs. The creativity of the drug gangs has led them to the commercialization of the guts of the Corvina fish. The digestive system of that fish is extremely resistant, and the criminals use their guts to make little capsules to carry cocaine thru a “mule”.
In the past “Mules” swallowed capsules made of latex. When they would have a meal, the latex materials would react with the gastric juices which resulted in the latex capsules exploding, and the “mules” dying of poisoning. This represented a high financial loss to the gangs. The solution to the problem was “The Buche” or guts of the Corvina, which are resistant to gastric juices, flexible and prevent the drugs being contaminated.
The kilo of these guts is very expensive within Venezuela. There have been multiple gunfights and killings between rival gangs in an effort to gain control of the commercialization of Corvina guts as it is a very profitable business.
At a more sophisticated level, it is common for drug deliveries to be airdropped into the sea to be retrieved by fishing boats or divers. The light aircraft from Venezuela drop the drugs at prearranged GPS coordinates to be picked up by waiting fishing boats or the drugs are weighted down and retrieved later by divers. The drugs are then transported ashore hidden in or under the fishing or dive boats to be sold locally or to continue being trafficked to their final destination.
In the Northern Caribbean, the supplies of illegal firearms and ammunition predominantly flow south out of the United States on commercial and private maritime vessels, whereas in the Southern Caribbean illegal arms are flowing north from Venezuela.
As with the illegal drug trafficking trade, firearms and ammunition are easily transported around the Caribbean Islands via a multitude of maritime vessels. Illegal firearms and ammunition are often concealed within commercial goods ranging from bags of rice to motor vehicles. The vast amounts of merchandise being shipped into the Caribbean from the United States alone means local Customs Services cannot search the majority of the cargo being imported to their countries.
In addition to the commercially bought small arms (pistols/rifles) coming out of the United States, the threat from military grade medium weapons (light anti-armor weapons, etc.) coming out of such places as Venezuela is very real.
With strict firearms laws within the Caribbean, the demand for illegal firearms and ammunition by criminals is high. Those seeking to legally own firearms for sporting and self-defense purposes usually face lengthy in-depth vetting procedures.
At this point acts of terrorism are extremely rare within the Caribbean but there is a high potential for future incidents. It’s common knowledge that citizens from Trinidad and Tobago have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS and other extremist groups against the Syrian Government. Those returning after fighting in Syria will have gained combat skills and would have been further radicalized. It is also common knowledge that Hezbollah has an active presence throughout South America and has operatives in Venezuela. Hezbollah’s interests in Latin America are business oriented at this point; they are reportedly involved in money laundering, drug trafficking, and the gold business.
Other sources of potential terrorists are deportees from the United States who have been radicalized in the US prison systems and those who have arrived legally or illegally from such war zones as Syria, Iraq or Libya, etc. The issue with those traveling from troubled countries such as Syria or even Haiti is that it is extremely difficult to confirm their real identities and in locations where there are communities from their own countries potential terrorists and criminals can receive assistance when applying for visas, especially in locations with high government corruption.
With the availability of black-market firearms, porous borders, the abundance of poorly secured tourist resorts and the known presence of terrorist sympathizers we predict it is only a matter of time before there is a notable terrorist incident within the Caribbean.
Incidents of maritime piracy are on the rise in the Southern Caribbean due to the situation in Venezuela. Throughout the Caribbean incidents of small scale, petty thefts and robberies on maritime vessels are not unusual; incidents of assaults and murders happen occasionally but are not common at this point.
The potential for an increase in incidents of maritime piracy, especially targeting private yachts and smaller commercial vessels, is high due to the expansion and influences of the well-armed and organized criminal groups from Venezuela.
On a larger scale, the abundance of commercial vessels such as oil tankers and tourist cruise ships would make easy targets for terrorists. The oil tankers are floating bombs that if attacked and sank would wreak havoc on the Caribbean ecosystem. The unsecured cruise ships are hostage situations waiting to happen.
Money laundering has always been an issue within the Caribbean but is also an important source of income for many of the islands. Illicit funds are laundered through a variety of methods including the purchase of real estate, vehicles, maritime vessels, and jewelry as well as through an array of legitimate businesses.
The Citizenship by Investment Program (CIP) has been regarded as a major gateway for money laundering and other criminal activities. Many of the sovereign island nations within the Caribbean offer the CIP, and questions have been raised about it allowing known criminals to obtain new identities. This is easily accomplished, especially with those originally from countries that use non-Roman alphabets or from cultures where it is common for a person to have multiple given names and surnames.
The United States has named all major Caribbean countries as Major Money Laundering Jurisdictions* for the year 2018. The only countries left off the list were the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, both US protectorates, along with Martinique and Guadeloupe both of them overseas protectorates of France. Even though these countries may not be on the “Major Money Laundering Jurisdictions” they all suffer from the same permeable borders and trafficking issues as the rest of the Caribbean. Interestingly enough, the European Commission placed the US territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and US Virgin Islands on their Money Laundering Blacklist*. The Caribbean countries on the list are:
- Antigua and Barbuda: Money laundering, narcotics trafficking, gaming, and firearms trafficking are major sources of illicit funds in Antigua and Barbuda. The US State Department accused the country’s Citizenship By Investment Program (CIP), of being” among the most lax in the world.”
- Aruba: Aruba is a transshipment point for drugs from South America heading for the United States and Europe, and for currency returning back to South America.
- Bahamas: The US claims the major sources of laundered proceeds in the Bahamas are from drug and firearms trafficking, gaming, and human smuggling. Researchers added that drug traffickers and criminal organizations exploit the large number of IBCs and offshore banks registered in the Bahamas to launder money, despite transaction reporting requirements.
- Barbados: Drug trafficking, money laundering, and firearms trafficking are major sources of illicit funds in Barbados.
- British Virgin Islands: The potential misuse of BVI corporate vehicles remains a concern as money laundered in the BVI predominantly comes from domestic criminal activity and drug trafficking.
- Cayman Islands: Most of the money laundering in the Cayman Islands comes from foreign criminal activity such as fraud, tax evasion, and drug trafficking.
- Cuba: A known opponent of the US, Cuba was put on the list not because of money laundering but because of its location between drug supplying and drug consuming countries and its lack of cooperation with the U.S.
- Curaçao: The primary source of money laundered in Curacao is related to proceeds from illegal narcotics.
- Dominica: Money laundered in Dominica comes from foreign fraudulent investment schemes, advance fee fraud schemes, and narcotics activities. The country’s Citizenship by Investment Program was also mentioned in the report as being vulnerable to corruption.
- Dominican Republic: The major sources of money laundered in the Dominican Republic are illicit trafficking activities, tax evasion, and fraud. The presence of international illicit trafficking cartels, a large informal economy, and weak banking controls make the country appealing for money laundering activities.
- Grenada: Money laundering in Grenada is connected to smuggling and drug trafficking by local organized crime groups.
- Guyana: The primary sources of laundered funds in Guyana are from narcotics trafficking, corruption, human trafficking, contraband, illegal natural resource extraction, and tax evasion.
- Haiti: Money laundered in Haiti comes from drug trafficking, corruption, embezzlement of government funds, smuggling, counterfeiting, kidnappings for ransom, illegal emigration and tax fraud.
- Jamaica: Money laundering in Jamaica deals primarily with the proceeds from illegal drugs, financial scams, extortion, financial crimes related to cybercrime, advance fee fraud (lottery scams) and is largely controlled by organized criminal groups.
- Sint Maarten: Money laundering in Sint Maarten centers around business investments and its statutes as an international tax shelter.
- St. Kitts and Nevis: These Islands have unusually strong bank secrecy laws which inhibit investigations into money laundering and are also at the center of main drug trafficking routes. The country’s Citizenship by Investment Program has been “afflicted by significant deficiencies in vetting candidates and conducting due diligence on passport and citizenship recipients after they receive citizenship”, claims the U.S.
- St. Lucia: The U.S. State Department report states that “Illicit drug trafficking by organized crime rings and the laundering of drug proceeds by domestic and foreign criminal elements remain serious problems for St. Lucia. It is believed financial institutions unwittingly engage in currency transactions involving international narcotics trafficking proceeds”.
- St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Money laundering and other financial crimes stemming from drug trafficking and its fluid and secretive offshore financial sector. The U.S. State Department report said “The set of islands remains a small but active offshore financial center with a relatively large number of IBCs. United States currency is often smuggled into the country via couriers, go-fast vessels, and yachts”.
- Suriname: Money laundering is closely linked to transnational criminal activity related to the transshipment of cocaine, which is invested locally in real estate, gold & minerals, foreign exchange companies, casinos, car dealerships, and the construction sector.
- Trinidad and Tobago: Drug trafficking, illegal arms sales, fraud, tax evasion, and public corruption are the main sources of illegal cash in Trinidad and Tobago. The State Department report says “Narcotics trafficking organizations and organized crime entities operating locally and internationally, control the majority of illicit proceeds moving through the country”.
*U.S. State Department Major Money Laundering Jurisdictions: https://www.state.gov/2019-international-narcotics-control-strategy-report/
*European commission money laundering blacklist: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-19-781_en.htm
The corruption of law enforcement, government officials and politicians are an international issue of which no country is exempt. The Caribbean cultures harbor over-familiarity and favoritism, and this is a big problem that can be exploited by criminals. Gone are the days when communities were small, and people could be trusted just because they were well known. Criminals seek out and try to align themselves with those who are favored within communities thus giving them legitimacy and helping them to avoid scrutiny.
As we can see from places like current day Mexico, the drug cartels have the money to buy the influence of law enforcement, government officials and politicians at all levels. The Mexican drug cartels are active within Venezuela and no-doubt the Venezuelan criminals are learning their methods of operation. With the expansion of the Venezuelan criminals, we can expect to see a rise in corruption at all levels as well as a rise in violent crimes.
All the issues we have listed will have direct links to organized crime groups. What we have not mentioned are the additional crimes such as extortion, kidnapping and murder that can be expected wherever criminal groups are operating.
What most people do not understand is that these days most successful crime groups are international organizations that are run to some extent like any other businesses. Their goals are to expand and make money, but unlike a corporation, organized crime groups operate with zero regulations, taxes and virtually total freedom of operations. Their only threats and competition are other criminal groups and effective law enforcement units.
Wars between criminal groups over trafficking routes or territory usually lead to local economies crashing as it’s no longer safe for a legitimate business to operate. If such gang wars broke out in the Caribbean this would also greatly affect the tourism industry that many island economies are dependent on.
We stated the other threat to organized criminal groups is effective law enforcement units. By effective we mean well trained and equipped units that have the political backing to be able to combat well-armed and organized criminal groups effectively, without being persecuted themselves by politicians and officials who have been corrupted by the criminal groups they are targeting.
The Caribbean also has an asset that the criminal groups are looking for, a large population of unemployed and restless youths seeking to better themselves. These young men and women are the foot soldiers required by the criminal groups to spread their influence and facilitate their crimes.
Effects of The Venezuelan Crisis
Venezuela and its communist partner Cuba still have a lot of influence and support within the Caribbean after many years of sanctions and crisis. Venezuela’s PetroCaribe oil initiative was set up in 2005 to provide cheap oil to Caribbean member countries and as a way of spreading Venezuelan influence through the region. PetroCaribe currently has 17 members including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname. Since the crisis in Venezuela, the PetroCaribe oil initiative continues but at a much-reduced level compared to what it was operating at before.
Throughout the Caribbean, the Cuban and Venezuelan governments supply doctors and nurses to many of the Islands. There is a lack of trained doctors and nurses throughout the Caribbean, as many locals after they receive the relevant schooling and certification immigrate to such locations as the United Kingdom where the pay and condition are far better than in their own countries. The Cuban and Venezuelan medical staff make up for the shortage of trained locals.
Venezuela has become a hub location for cocaine coming out of South America and heading for the US, Europe, and Africa via air and sea routes. The Mexican drug cartels have representatives in Venezuela to broker drug deals with the local drug gangs that are controlled by the Venezuelan military and intelligence services. Organized crime groups including Hezbollah are actively involved in Venezuela’s gold mining operations and trafficking. In addition to a marketplace, Venezuela offers a safe haven for international criminals and terrorists.
To survive in today’s Venezuela most people have to be corrupted or working with criminal groups to some extent. UNHCR reported in June 2019 that 4 million Venezuelans have chosen to flee the country and in their midst are hardened criminals and murderers seeking opportunities to ply their trade in other countries. For those in the criminal groups, the crisis in Venezuela is proving to be lucrative as they can operate with impunity as long as they are well aligned and pay the required tributes when called for.
As the crisis in Venezuela continues and their criminal economy becomes one of the country’s main sources of income its criminal gangs will become more sophisticated and start to seek out new territories and alliances within the region and internationally.
At this time the Venezuelan criminals are active in the Caribbean trafficking of people, firearms and drugs. In the future, as they seek to control territory throughout the region, they will become active in extortion, kidnapping, violent crimes and murder.
The United States
Whether the United States is a positive or negative influence on the Caribbean is a matter of opinion, especially after their recent fiasco of attempted regime change in Venezuela.
Most of the Caribbean islands were and to some extent still are heavily influenced by European laws and culture, which are very different from the laws and culture of the United States. Most of the Caribbean, outside of the tourist resorts, is very conservative and let’s say hold traditional values. The United States usually forgets such things and believes everyone should see things from their perspective.
It is common knowledge that the majority of illegal drugs passing through the Caribbean are destined for the United States and the majority of the guns and ammunition coming into the Caribbean is coming from the United States.
The United States economy is dependent on the proceeds from illegal drugs, so we must ask the question, do they really want to eradicate drug trafficking? If you take illegal narcotics out of the US economy then how many jobs will be lost for police officers, prison staff, lawyers and rehab workers on the surface, to start with and how would this, in turn, affect the US economy? The US’s drug addiction even motivated family doctors and pharmaceutical companies to get in on the market, that’s why the US is now suffering a major opioid epidemic. So, whose interest are they focusing on in their foreign and drug policies, those of a poor Caribbean Island or their own?
Another issue that is causing problems is that of the deportees that are being sent back from the United States after being convicted or serving prison sentences. The United States has the right to deport these criminals, many of whom were in the country illegally, but the issues arise when they return to their countries of origin. These people bring with them the advanced criminal skill sets they learned in the United States and also a network of international contacts.
One strange action by the United States was the sanctioning of the security forces and police of Saint Lucia under the Leahy Laws for human rights violations. Countries under sanctions from Leahy Laws are unable to receive U.S. military or police assistance, training and arms, etc. In 2013, Saint Lucia was sanctioned under the Leahy Laws due to what were believed to be 17 extrajudicial killings of known criminals. When you look at the statistics of people killed in the United States by police officers annually, especially those who were unarmed or mentally ill, I am very sure the number would far exceed that of those who are killed by police officers in the entire Caribbean.
As we said at the start of this article, whether the United States is a positive or negative influence on the Caribbean is a matter of opinion.
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