By Ezra Fieser
SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - The percentage of cocaine flowing to the United States through the Caribbean has more than tripled in the past three years, an Obama administration official said on Tuesday, adding weight to claims that criminal organizations are shifting back to a route they abandoned years ago.
About 16 percent of drugs entered the United States through the islands, up from 5 percent in 2011, said William Brownfield, assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, during a conference call with reporters.
That percentage would correlate to roughly 47 tons of cocaine. While that does not compare with the drug flow through Central America and Mexico, it has U.S. officials concerned.
“I do not wish to suggest that the amount of product flowing through the Caribbean even remotely approaches the levels of Central America and Mexico,” Brownfield said. “The disturbing thing is the trend line. The trend line has us correctly concerned,” he added.
The drug shipments originate in Colombia and Venezuela and travel by "go-fast" boats and cargo ships to the islands, with Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, serving as the most sought-after transshipment point.
Last year, Dominican authorities seized nearly 10 tons of cocaine, topping the record amount it captured just a year earlier, according to the Attorney General’s office.
The increase in smuggling provides fresh evidence of the Obama administration’s forecast that the U.S.-Mexican counter-drug efforts would push drug traffickers back to the Caribbean, which served as the principal route for Colombia’s infamous Medellin cartel in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Obama administration in 2010 launched the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, a regional security plan focused on cutting down on drug shipments. The State Department said it has committed more than $260 million to the initiative.
But traffickers are becoming bolder, sending huge amounts of cocaine, often more than a ton at a time, officials said. Budget cuts have also left authorities increasingly ill-prepared to interdict the shipments.
“Because of asset shortfalls, we’re unable to get after 74 percent of suspected maritime drug trafficking. I simply sit and watch it go by,” Marine General John F. Kelly said in a March Senate hearing. Kelly heads the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean.
(Editing by David Adams and Eric Walsh)