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Legal Decisions Could Both Harm and Help Caribbean Anti-Trafficking Efforts

Panama navy training

A navy training exercise takes place off the coast of Panama. (AP Photo)

December 04, 2012

Two court decisions on maritime issues this month could impact security operations in the Caribbean basin, experts say. On November 19, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that while Colombia maintains control over seven disputed Caribbean islets, Nicaragua now has jurisdiction over the nearly 39,000 square miles of territorial waters near the islands. Earlier in the month, a U.S. court of appeals ruled that the United States cannot prosecute drug-trafficking suspects caught at sea within 12 miles of a foreign country, based on a case in Panama. With more than 80 percent of U.S. cocaine transported by sea through Central America and 30 percent of all U.S.-bound illicit drugs shipped through the Caribbean, a number of multilateral anti-trafficking efforts focus in the Caribbean basin. The rulings could potentially hinder such operations, some observers say, but could also lead to increased cooperation, especially with the United States.

Some observers expressed concern that the ICJ ruling could affect security in Colombian-Nicaraguan territory. Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast has seen a growing number of maritime-based drug smugglers and is used by both Colombian and Mexican criminal organizations. With a small navy and what the State Department describes as “limited law enforcement capabilities,” Nicaragua may face obstacles combating smugglers. “When the hemisphere starts dividing up the ocean and fighting over who controls which area, especially when most countries do not have the resources or capabilities to do so, that's a scenario in which the criminal groups prosper,” writes analyst James Bosworth. Experts interviewed by TIME agreed, saying the new expanse of maritime territory could be a “boon” for traffickers. “Our victory in the Hague was a bitter fruit because Nicaragua does not have the capacity to guarantee permanent security of its newly acquired maritime zone,” said Roberto Cajina, a Nicaragua security expert.

Following the court ruling, Nicaragua’s National Assembly passed an emergency presidential decree November 30 allowing U.S. troops to carry out joint drug operations in the newly acquired maritime space. The move aims to “reinforce the war on narco-activity [and] international organized crime,” said head Sandinista Congressman Edwin Castro. In spite of the ICJ decision, Colombia kept numerous warships in the disputed maritime territory, even after a December 2 meeting between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. The continued presence of the armada seeks the “protection of Colombians, [to] combat narco-trafficking, and exercise sovereignty in the archipelago,” said Navy Commander Roberto García Márquez.

Another court decision may also affect anti-drug operations in the Caribbean. This month, the United States’ Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals struck down part of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, saying suspects caught within a 12-mile boundary of any foreign country cannot be prosecuted in the United States. The case arose in 2010, after Panamanian authorities arrested four traffickers spotted by the U.S. Coast Guard off the coast of Panama, but the suspects were sentenced in the United States. The Panamanians’ defense lawyer argued it was a domestic criminal case. Should the ruling hold, U.S. authorities could prove unable to undertake anti-trafficking operations within 12 miles of any foreign country.

But even if the decision isn’t overturned, anti-trafficking efforts could still continue or even expand. The majority of interceptions at sea take place outside of the 12-mile boundary, InSight Crime explains. David Weinstein, the former head of narcotics at the U.S. attorney’s office in south Florida, said the ruling could actually lead to more cooperation as countries determine how to partner on efforts within foreign 12-mile coastline zones. "[I]t is going to increase the level and depth of communications between the United States and foreign countries as they battle drug-trafficking together," he told The Miami Herald.

In other Caribbean-basin security news:

  • The Miami Herald reports on Colombian narco submarines, saying, “Colombia’s Pacific coast is the Silicon Valley of narco-innovation.” One sub discovered by Colombian authorities can travel 8,000 miles, fits eight tons of cocaine, and has indoor plumbing.
  • As a part of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), the United States will launch a $3.43 million assistance program this week to combat arms trafficking through capacity-building. Since its launch in April 2009, the United States committed $203 million to the CBSI, funding maritime and aerial security cooperation, law enforcement training, technical support to boost border security, judicial reform, and crime prevention in Caribbean Community member states and the Dominican Republic.
  • With a rise in drug seizures and homicides, Puerto Rico has become a frontline for U.S. anti-trafficking efforts, reports NBC News. Thus far in 2012, U.S. agents intercepted 22,000 pounds of illicit drugs—a 137 percent increase since 2010. Drug trafficking ties account for more than two-thirds of the island’s homicides, which rose 11 percent from 2010 to 2011.