There’s a U.S. Southern border that you probably haven’t given much thought to. This one is in the Caribbean and it’s the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. On a recent trip there, I saw firsthand how active this border can be when it comes to illegal immigrants and drugs.
Puerto Rico is about the size of Connecticut and only about 80 miles from the Dominican Republic and Haiti across what’s called the Mona Passage. It’s also a straight shot from Venezuela and Colombia. That positioning makes it prime territory for drug runners and human smugglers moving illegal products into the U.S.
Roberto Vaquero is a top U.S. border security official in Puerto Rico. He told me that if drug traffickers and human smugglers get their cargo safely into Puerto Rico, they’re home free. That’s because there are no more border checks between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S.
“We're in a unique strategic location,” Vaquero says. “It's an easy route for smugglers to actually move their narcotics or any other type of contraband to any secluded beach of other sister islands that we have here in Puerto Rico. Also, it's considered domestic if you're flying in anything from actually Puerto Rico into the US mainland. So that's a smuggler's dream.”
Border agents in Puerto Rico recently seized 311 pounds of cocaine shaped into 122 bricks and hidden in a tank that arrived on a ferry. Drug sniffing border dogs found boxes from Colombia labeled “red roses” but containing cocaine valued at more than $700 thousand dollars. Heroin has been hidden in shampoo bottles. Drugs have been found inside books and dry erase markers. During a July bust, border agents chased down a boat carrying three smugglers and 220 pounds of cocaine. Two Dominican Republic boats were intercepted carrying 4,192 pounds of cocaine worth $47.5 million.
When it comes to smuggling illegal immigrants into the country, it’s a common occurrence. In the past year throughout Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, 1,434 illegal immigrants were picked up. About one-third of them already had criminal histories. In September, a makeshift boat overloaded with 38 illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic capsized. Three of them drowned.
Officials tell me there has been a spike in drug seizures in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Caribbean sector. They say when security tightens up on the Mexican border, they become more active in Puerto Rico.