Lost Opportunities for Cooperation on Drugs
By Wayne S. Smith
delegation organized by the Center for International Policy visited
Cuba on January 5-9, 1998, to look into the possibilities of more systematic
cooperation between Cuba and the United States in drug interdiction.
There have been isolated instances of cooperation, most notably in the
case of the Limerick, a vessel seized in Cuban waters in 1996 with six
tons of cocaine aboard. The delegation found, however, that there is
no planned cooperation, let alone any effort on the part of the United
States to enhance Cuba's interdiction capabilities. On the contrary,
the United States seems reluctant to work more closely with the Cubans.
Worse, it prevents full Cuban participation in a number of Caribbean
initiatives to coordinate anti-drug efforts.
its geographic location, Cuba could be the key to sharply reducing the
flow of drugs through the Caribbean to the United States. Not to enlist
Cuba in an all-out joint effort--and not to encourage its full participation
in regional efforts--undermines the interests of the United States itelf.
If the war on drugs is indeed a top national priority, this is a poor
way to conduct it.
the administration may be reluctant to seek Cuba's fuller cooperation
is fear of offending certain members of the Congress who in Section
2 of the Helms-Burton Act suggest that "The Cuban Government engages
in the illegal international narcotics trade . . . "
assertion itself is now without foundation and the administration should
know it. According to the Coast Guard's Seventh District in Miami, over
the past few years it has had no evidence--except anecdotal--of any
official Cuban involvement in drug smuggling. Quite the contrary, the
Cubans are cooperating with us in drug interdiction. The point is that
both our efforts could be more successful if that cooperation were more
Cuba, the delegation met with:
Alarcón, president of the national assembly
Roberto Díaz Sotolongo, minister of justice
Abelardo Ramírez Marquéz, vice minister of public health
Gen. Lázaro Ramón, commander of the Cuban Border Guards
Gen. Jesús Becerra, deputy commander of the national police
Col. Oliverio Montalvo, chief of the national anti-drug directorate
The delegation also visited the operations room of the Border Guards,
went aboard patrol boats, inspected the national forensic laboratory,
and went through the William Soler Children's Hospital. During these
meetings, the delegation was fully briefed on Cuban efforts to interdict
drugs and on the magnitude of the problem.
also met with Michael Kozak, chief of the U.S. interests section, who
outlined the U.S. policy of inviting cooperation only on a limited caseby-case
Hatfield's response to that was that if we had fought World War II on
a case-by-case basis, with no strategy or coordination, we would have
Cooperation Would Do
above, the official U.S. position is that the present level of cooperation
is all that is needed. This is based on the assertion that Cuba is not
on any major smuggling route and that few drugs pass through Cuban waters
or air space anyway. When the Coast Guard or DEA occasionally spot some
suspicious vessel or aircraft headed into Cuban territorial air space
or seas, they can at that point call on the Cubans to intercept. In
some cases, according to the U.S. interests section, the Cubans have
not been able to do so, but in a few others, the interception has been
quite successful. The most notable was the case of the Limerick, a vessel
boarded by the Coast Guard in international waters in 1996. The vessel
was taking on water and drifting. The Coast Guard removed the crew and
began to search the vessel, but before the search could be completed,
the vessel had drifted into Cuban waters. The Coast Guard alerted the
Cuban Border Guards and withdrew. The Border Guards then boarded and
searched the vessel. Using information provided by the United States
and other sources the Cubans eventually found six tons of cocaine. They
cooperated fully with the United States by turning the cargo over to
the Coast Guard for use as evidence in the trial against the vessel's
captain. They even sent four Cuban officials to Miami to testify at
of the Limerick demonstrates what might be achieved through closer cooperation
with Cuba. Analyzed more closely, it also argues against the principal
rationale for the status quo. If one vessel yielded up six tons of cocaine,
how much more must be passing along this route?
and disturbing answer to that question is seen in the fact that in 1997
alone, well over six tons of narcotics washed ashore on Cuban beaches.
This, because the pattern is for small planes to drop bags of narcotics
into the sea off Cuba's northern keys. The floating bags are then picked
up by speedboats for the run up to Florida. But some are missed and
eventually float ashore. If we estimate that these six tons represent
only about 10 percent of what is dropped, then some sixty tons per year
are being moved by this one method alone. Estimates place the amount
of drugs being smuggled around Cuba's eastern and western capes and
through its territorial seas and air space at many times that.
Cuba's geographic position alone makes it a key to halting the flow
of drugs through the Caribbean to the United States. It not only lies
between the Caribbean and the United States and controls all Caribbean
approaches to the United States, it also controls the entrance to the
Gulf of Mexico. With sufficient equipment and resources, it could be
a valuable ally in the war against drugs.
officials with whom the delegation met, from Ricardo Alarcon, the president
of the national assembly, to General Lazaro Roman, commander of Cuba's
Border Guards, emphasized Cuba's full willingness to cooperate with
the U.S. Coast Guard and DEA on a much expanded case-by-case basis.
They noted that Cuba is doing the best it can under difficult circumstances
and with limited resources to interdict drugs, even though 90 percent
are destined for the United States, not Cuba. Thus, in interdicting
them, Cuba is in effect assisting the United States, a neighbor which
often seems determined to isolate it and even to consider it an enemy.
However, Cuba considers the war against drugs to be one for all humanity
and thus has no reservations about providing such assistance so long
as Cuban territorial rights and sovereignty are fully respected. On
the contrary, it is prepared to assist even more fully.
noted that their country's sea frontier stretches for some 1,650 miles
around the island, that Cuba has more than 42,000 square miles of territorial
seas containing some 4,195 island and small keys, often well offshore.
Their resources to watch and patrol all this are quite limited. Because
of the economic crisis, they have had to mothball many of their patrol
craft, fuel is scarce and they have only some 117 operational radars.
Cuba recognizes and desires access to some of the superior U.S. technology
that can be brought to bear. At present it must rely on other foreign
countries for their less-than-cutting-edge technology and because of
severe limitations on hard currency, it cannot even obtain much of that.
They cited several examples including having to go to Canada to get
dogs trained for drug searching.
emphasized that no alert has been received from the U.S. Coast Guard
to which they have not responded. When the Coast Guard advises them
of a suspicious vessel, they try to intercept. However, they are usually
contacted rather late in the game and thus often do not have cutters
positioned to intercept. Their chances of successful interception would
be much improved by earlier warning and by greater coordination of patrol
areas. They never know which quadrants the Coast Guard is covering,
so there is some duplication of effort. It would make sense to coordinate
areas and operations to the extent that security concerns might realistically
systematic exchange of information would also be useful. The United
States has the capability to blanket the entire Caribbean with electronic
surveillance. Cuba has no access to any of that. Its surface radars
only reveal what is on the horizon, not what is beyond. It needs more
information as to the overall situation and on vessels that may be headed
its way well before they are on the horizon. But not only does the United
States not share such information with them, it prevents their full
access to intelligence sharing on a regional basis. Essentially, this
involves three organizations:
Caribbean Customs and Law Enforcement Commission, which is based in
St. Lucia and whose secretariat is run by a British customs officer.
The United States has prevented Cuba from becoming a full member, thus
impeding access to the organization's intelligence sharing much to the
irritation of the other members.
World Customs Organization, whose Caribbean chapter is based in San
Juan, Puerto Rico. Cuba is a member, but because the headquarters are
in San Juan, it has no access to the organization's intelligence facilities.
most important regional effort is through the Caribbean Drug Initiative.
This was generated by the European Union and Great Britain remains the
principal sparkplug. Cuba is an integral part of the CDI. However, intelligence
sharing is to be coordinated through the Inter-American Commission Against
Drug Abuse, which is an agency of the Organization of American States.
Cuba is not a member of the OAS and so cannot take part.
Cuba is operating at a distinct disadvantage: with inadequate resources
and with access to only the most rudimentary intelligence. "It
is," said one Cuban officer, "as though we were working with
only one arm and leg and most of the time blindfolded."
for a very limited case-by-case approach to cooperation now pursued
by the United States, i.e., the status quo, do not hold up to even the
most rudimentary scrutiny. On the contrary, if it is to give the war
on drugs the priority it deserves, the United States should devise ways
to cooperate more closely with Cuba and encourage Cuba's full participation
in regional interdiction efforts. The CIP delegation would recommend
the following steps:
United States should drop all efforts to impede Cuba's access to intelligence-sharing
in the three regional organizations. Indeed, it should move in the other
direction, taking the lead in clearing the way for the island's full
membership and participation.
Coast Guard should be authorized to begin a systematic exchange of information
with the Cuban Border Guards on the subject of drug interdiction and
to coordinate patrol areas and responsibilities on a continuing basis.
should be frequent and periodic meetings between representatives of
the Border Guards and the Coast Guard to discuss joint drug-interdiction
operations, problems and ways to overcome them. Meetings already occur,
but only to discuss problems related to rafters; exchanges on drug interdiction
are prohibited. This prohibition should be immediately removed.
United States should consider the provision of technical and material
assistance to Cuba with a view to enhancing its interdiction capabilities.
Joint training exercises might be a useful confidence-building first
cooperation with us in drug interdiction efforts should be publicly