From drones to diplomacy, 10 ways to fight gun and drug trafficking

Gun Rights
Stopping drug boats, like this one intercepted by an Interpol led team in Curucao, could require greater regional co-operation. – Photo: Interpol media

Over the past month, the Cayman Compass has taken a deep dive into the world of organised, and sometimes disorganised, crime in the Caribbean.

Focusing on the trafficking of guns and drugs around the region and, ultimately, into Cayman, we have spoken with regional experts, local and international law enforcement, and even some criminals operating in the drug trade.

Closing out our series, we look at some of the solutions put forward to help Cayman and the wider region get a better grip on the merchants fuelling gun violence around the Caribbean.

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1. A Caribbean coast guard

One of the key challenges of disrupting gun and drug trafficking in the Caribbean is simple geography. 

More than 30 islands – some sovereign nations, others Dutch, Spanish, French or British – share responsibility for thousands of miles of ocean and a marine border with central and South America.

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Standardising policy to facilitate joint operations across such disparate territories – with populations ranging from 5,000 to several million – is an evolving challenge. CARICOM’s Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) is increasingly acting as a hub to coordinate regional law enforcement and US agencies.

But more can be done, says its executive director Lieutenant Colonel Michael Jones, suggesting a Caribbean coast guard could be a long-term fix to tackle transnational criminal organisations in the region.

The concept of a regional coast guard has support from Anthony Clayton, of the University of the West Indies and the author of Jamaica’s anti-crime strategy.

“We need to have ships that can handle rough seas and stay out for more than 48 hours,” he told the Compass.

“If every country is only able to patrol its inshore waters, we will never break up this trade.”

2. A joint strategy for policing the seas

One step short of a coast guard, but a giant leap forward in the fight against organised crime, would be a joint maritime strategy for the Caribbean basin.

Clayton co-authored an academic paper – ‘The Case for a Caribbean Regional Security Strategy’ – which warns that islands collectively lack the ‘domain awareness’ to stop traffickers at sea and intercept drugs and guns.

“The Caribbean consists of a number of coastal states and small island nations scattered across thousands of miles of sea, so the maritime arena is particularly important, yet it has been relatively neglected,” the report warns.

The solution it proposes is a joint strategy that allows countries with different resources to cooperate.

“Actions that deliver actionable intelligence on terrorist or drug cartel plans in one jurisdiction, intercept their weapons in another, seize their proceeds of crime in a third, or break up their money-laundering operation in a fourth, all help to degrade criminal networks and make the entire region safer,” the report notes.

3. Float plans and transponders

Individually, countries could improve their own awareness through fairly simple legislation – for example, by requiring ‘float plans’ from all vessels or making transponders mandatory on boats.

That’s a safety standard first and foremost, says Clayton, but it could also be a powerful intelligence tool.

Drug canoes impounded at the Coast Guard headquarters in Grand Cayman. – Photo: James Whittaker

“Something we could and should be doing is getting tough on maritime issues – like putting transponders on boats,” he added.

Combined with better radar, that would give law enforcement the ability to monitor the movement of vessels around its waters and highlight suspicious patterns – such as a rendezvous between boats at sea.

4. Massive investment in resources

Jones, of CARICOM IMPACS, highlights significant resource challenges across the region stemming form the diversity of size and wealth of the islands that make up the Caribbean.

There are small, but well-resourced countries like Cayman; sparsely populated islands like Montserrat; larger but economically weak areas like Jamaica; and then failed states like Haiti.

The challenges are diverse, and some funding support may be necessary, for example, to ensure radar coverage across the Caribbean Sea. 

Clayton adds, “You have countries that have only one working radar, that are supposed to have four. Others have coverage at only one port. There are countries that have almost no maritime assets – just one or two boats that are consistently in need of repair. There are major, major gaps.”

He argues for joint procurement to allow Caribbean countries collective-bargaining power to get the best deals and the most suitable equipment for each island, as well as the ability to share information more easily.

5. Eyes in the sky

Border-patrol drones are increasingly being used in other jurisdictions to help supplement law enforcement.

Hundreds of unmanned surveillance drones supplement patrols on the US/Mexico border, covering wide distances and feeding back information to agents.

Drones, alongside radar investment promised from the UK, could conceivably help Cayman keep better watch on its borders without heavy funding for boats, helicopters and new coast guard recruits, allowing investigators to focus on intelligence-led operations. Such surveillance could also help monitor the vast amount of drugs – more than $1 million of cocaine last year – that washes up in Cayman.

In a press release issued Tuesday, 30 April, the Progressives opposition welcomed Governor Jane Owens’ commitment to expanding radar resources and highlighted the possibility of future investment in drones.

“The Progressives have previously advocated for equipping law enforcement with the latest technology tools, including radar and drones, and implementing strategies that have the best potential to combat crime and protect our borders significantly,” it stated.

“We understand that reliable intelligence gathering, modern technology, and strong collaboration among law enforcement agencies are essential to keeping our borders and people safe.”

6. Getting tough on corruption

Improvements in technology will only go so far unless the Caribbean deals with the challenge of corrupt officials helping to facilitate the flow of illicit goods.

The highest profile example in recent times was the drug-trafficking conviction of former British Virgin Islands Premier Andrew Fahie in February this year.

Deadly trade: Spotlight on guns and drugs

Fahie, who served as leader of the British territory between 2019 and 2022, was caught in a sting operation agreeing with US Drug Enforcement Administration informants – posing as members of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel – to allow BVI ports to be used as a trans-shipping hub for cocaine.

That’s an extreme example of the kind of collusion from officials that greases the wheels of the illegal trade in drugs and guns throughout the region.

According to ‘The Case for a Caribbean Regional Security Strategy’, “many of the top-tier criminals and facilitators are heavily invested in the political process in order to obtain leverage and protection, and this has led to a number of compromised or aborted investigations, or undermined the moral authority of governments”.

7. Finding the way to San José

Almost 20 years in the making, the Treaty of San José aims to ensure there is no place to hide for traffickers within the Caribbean Sea.

Also known as the ‘Agreement Concerning Co-operation in Suppressing Illicit Maritime and Air Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in the Caribbean Area’, it would allow law enforcement to move more freely through a complex network for overlapping territorial waters.

Owen said she was confident that Cayman would soon be in a position to be ready to sign the treaty. 

Jones, of CARICOM IMPACS, expects other countries within the region, including Jamaica, to sign soon. He said it would help with the ‘hot pursuit’ of criminal vessels, as well as proactive operations – such as controlled deliveries – where law enforcement can track a deal from start to finish.

8.  Stemming the flow of American guns

As we reported, ballistics evidence from crime scenes in Cayman, show that the vast majority of firearms crimes in Cayman were committed with American guns.

A cache of weapons seized by Jamaican law enforcement at Kingston wharf in February. Like most weapons seized in the region, the firearms originated in the US. – Photo: Supplied

While the chances of the US significantly tightening up access to weapons within its borders remains slim – “not a chance in hell,” one academic told us – there is hope that the Biden administration will do more to control the illegal export of American made weapons to the Caribbean.

The Caribbean Arms Trafficking Causes Harm (CATCH) Act, introduced in the United States Congress to curb illicit arms trafficking from the US into the region, was hailed as a major step forward by Mark Shields, a security expert and former deputy commissioner of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

If passed, the CATCH Act would strengthen efforts in the Caribbean region by requiring an annual report on the prosecution activities of the Coordinator for Caribbean Firearms Prosecutions of the Department of Justice, according to reporting in the Jamaica Gleaner.

Information required in the reports would include details on the number, destination, and method of transportation of firearms, ammunition, and firearms accessories.

Shields told the Compass the legislation was long overdue and was one of a handful of small steps from the US towards more sensible restrictions on guns.

“The US is doing more than they have ever done, but until they get their own gun laws together, there will always be that possibility [of importing legally purchased weapons to the Caribbean],” he said.

9. Zero community tolerance

In interviews, Cayman’s Police Commissioner Kurt Walton and Coast Guard Commander Robert Scotland have both alluded to the local community’s tolerance of crime.

Walton highlighted the ‘merchants of evil’ on one side, and the family members, girlfriends and friends on the other that help hide weapons after a crime.

Referring to February’s Ed Bush Stadium shooting, in which seven people were wounded, he told the Compass, “I guarantee you that shooter would have been enabled. Someone had to put the gun in the shooter’s hand, then someone would have assisted in the retention and concealment of that weapon after the fact.”

Scotland pointed out that many drug traffickers were, in his view, operating with the tolerance and cooperation of the community.

“What I believe we have is a group of very lucky people who have been actively exploiting our unprotected coastline, with the support, direct or indirect, of their friends and family members for many, many years,” he said.

Scotland insisted people should now be tired of the “repercussions” of this being felt in the community, and called on those with information to help law enforcement.

10. Greater focus on causes of crime

While this series has focused on efforts to stop guns and drugs being trafficked into the Cayman Islands, there is an argument that more effort should be concentrated on addressing the demand.

The oft-used slogan of the US National Rifle Association, ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’, may miss the point that powerful weapons have exponentially increased the degree of violence in Caribbean gang struggles. But it does hint at the need to address the root cause of the problem – the desire of young men to join gangs and pick up firearms in the first place.

Devon Anglin, a former member of the Birch Tree Hill gang in West Bay, who is serving time for murder, told the Compass more needs to be done in the battle to help wayward youth address social problems at the root of their offending.

“It is not about military force – it is about hearts and minds,” he said. “It’s about addressing the issues they are dealing with.”

That’s where Anglin believes he and other prisoners can help by going into schools on a regular basis and talking to young people with a voice and perspective they recognise.

The Compass will take a closer look at the battle to address causes of crime in a future series.

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