U.S. Hears Island's Drug-War Needs

U.S. Hears Island's Drug-War Needs
Posted by FoM on January 04, 2000 at 22:07:16 PT
By Maya Bell, Miami Bureau
Source: Orlando-Sentinel
SWEETWATER -- Puerto Rico's former attorney general delivered an after-Christmas wish list to Congress on Tuesday, telling members that the commonwealth is unprepared to keep pace with traffickers who have turned the island into a staging area for cocaine and heroin destined for the United States.But not for lack of trying.
Jose Fuentes Agostini, who resigned as Puerto Rico's top law-enforcement official last week, said state and federal soldiers in the island's war against drugs have established an award-winning intelligence center but are stymied by an overburdened federal court system and shortages in personnel and response equipment.And come March, he said, the island's anti-drug task force may be forced to sit and watch from the sidelines as cocaine-laden planes leave the jungles of Colombia.That's when a new radar capable of detecting planes flying in a distant region will begin operating from Puerto Rico. Two such "relocatable over-the-horizon radars" already are in use in Texas and West Virginia, and the third one in the Caribbean will help drug agents keep abreast of South American hot spots."We'll know whenever any aircraft takes off from the jungles of Colombia, but how will we respond?" Fuentes asked the House Committee on Government Reform, during a South Florida hearing on drug trafficking in Cuba and Puerto Rico. "The capabilities are not there."As one solution, he suggested that Puerto Rico's anti-drug forces be allowed to use eight Blackhawk helicopters assigned to the Puerto Rican National Guard. With two engines each, the choppers are ideal for flying for extended periods over the ocean, Fuentes said. But sharing the Blackhawks with the guard, which uses them primarily for training, wouldn't come cheap. A mere hour's flight costs about $2,200, and each helicopter would have to be equipped with infrared equipment for surveillance.The Coast Guard cutters that ply the Caribbean are equally ill-equipped, Fuentes said. Shipboard personnel have little trouble spotting small boats that speed to Haiti to drop off loads of drugs, which are later brought overland to the Dominican Republic, and then smuggled on wooden boats to Puerto Rico for easy distribution to the United States.Catching them, though, is a different story. The cutters, Fuentes said, can't chase boats zipping along at more than 50 mph. So, added to his wish list are nine inflatable "go-fast" boats, one for every active cutter. The cost: about $150,000 each.Fuentes also requested:Two more federal judgeships and magistrates for Puerto Rico, bringing the total to nine. One of the island's seven federal judgeships has been vacant for seven years, Fuentes said, creating a backlog that has all but paralyzed civil cases and severely crippled criminal cases.A quadrupling of immigration officials in Puerto Rico, from 40 to 160. Fuentes said that 95 percent of the all drugs ferried into Puerto Rico are brought by illegal aliens from Colombia or the Dominican Republic, yet U.S. immigration officials insist that the problems of drugs and illegal aliens are unrelated.Fuentes' requests did not fall on deaf ears. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the committee chairman who has assailed the Clinton administration for slashing anti-drug efforts abroad in favor of domestic prevention and treatment programs, said he will send a letter outlining Puerto Rico's needs to President Clinton and other government officials.Published in The Orlando Sentinel on January 05, 2000 Posted Jan 4, 2000  2000 
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