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The Caribbean and the cartels

Book Cover cocaine trafficking in the Caribbean

Executions. Missing limbs. Hundreds of young men mysteriously shot, mutilated, missing… Illicit drug trafficking. Expert Daurius Figueira explains how this country's many "crime waves" are linked to our location in the belly of the international drug trade. Illicit drug trafficking through the Caribbean Basin to the US started in the second half of '60s. Since then it has evolved in distinct stages. In 2013, trafficking through the Caribbean Basin now extends to placing "product" in North America, Europe and Asia through far-distant trafficking transition points such as West Africa, the Sahel region of Africa and East Africa, all under the hegemony of the infamous Mexican cartels. The Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas are the two dominant Mexican cartels present in the Caribbean island chain today.

The product mix offered under the Mexican cartels has also changed; their illicit drug of choice is methamphetamine, known as "meth", "ice", "crystal" and "glass". It is manufactured in offshore factories in Africa and Central America, eventually ending up in the Caribbean island chain. The Mexican cartels control their own cocaine production units in Peru and Bolivia and move cocaine from there to North America, Europe and Asia via the Caribbean Basin and other trafficking routes.

The Mexican cartels are exercising hegemonic control over the illicit drug trade of the Caribbean island chain and changes to the order of the illicit trade in the Caribbean Basin are evident, mainly: (a) the embrace of Caribbean "gangland" by the Mexican cartels and the evolution of gangs of young men from underprivileged areas that resulted, (b) the evolution of other illicit trades such as human smuggling and small arms trafficking has been impacted (c) the social order of narco-trafficking states has been usurped by the Mexicans' use of drugs to pay locals for their services and as "currency".

Caribbean gangland must be noted for its unique operational characteristics, i.e. Caribbean gangland does not wear ink, colours, represent or tag as North American gangland is not Caribbean gangland. In addition Caribbean gangland has an order/hierarchy and the apex/players are rooted in illicit drug trafficking. Caribbean gangland has now been embraced by the Mexican cartels; in exchange for services to the cartels Caribbean gangland are given franchises to traffic product to consumer markets in Europe and North America and be involved in the wholesaling and retailing of Mexican-sourced product.

The Mexican cartels are deliberately creating a new division of labour and a new social order in the illicit trades of the Caribbean Basin. The "law lords" of Caribbean gangland are, as a result, becoming globalised players in the illicit trades, cemented in their alliance to the Mexican cartels. This reality is impacting the lowest echelons of Caribbean gangland as the feeding frenzy spreads and intensifies, driven by the quest to get in on the new action unleashed by the Mexican cartels throughout the Caribbean Basin.

All vacancies are filled in this new illicit enterprise and the wannabes prey on each other and launch ill-conceived predatory attempts to topple the "dons", which evoke acts of graphic violence with the intent of sending messages, which are never heard or internalised. Hence the cycle of graphic gun violence.

This is as clear an indicator of the impotence of narcotrafficking states of the Caribbean Basin as any. The State is powerless against this level of organised crime. Caribbean gangland, in its operational alliance with the Mexican cartels, has now evolved to being a global player in a number of illicit trades ranging from drug trafficking, human smuggling, small arms trafficking, identity theft and lotto scams to the smuggling of counterfeit goods. The lucrative nature of the illicit trades of the Caribbean Basin is illustrated by the operational presence of gangs formed in the US, such as Mara Salvatrucha, Los Trinitarios and Zoe Pound. They have linked their US operations to Caribbean Basin activities – all in service to the Mexican cartels.

What Caribbean gangland is today, in its evolutionary stage brought about by the nexus with the Mexican cartels, will not be eradicated by draconian, knee-jerk anti-gang legislation premised on US models. US reality has no relevance to Caribbean gangland; it is part of the problem – not the solution. Draconian, knee-jerk anti-gang legislation will fill the prisons, thereby ensuring that Caribbean gangland takes control of these same prisons, where foot soldiers can be recruited and schooled in the hard discipline of prison gang life, then unleashed on the unarmed public.

The most powerful organisation in Caribbean gangland today, Association Neta, was formed in the prisons of Puerto Rico then spread to the US. Today, Association Neta is an apex player in the illicit drug trade of Puerto Rico, the murder capital of the Caribbean island chain. Learn well from this reality. The abiding reality today is that Caribbean gangland is the foot soldiers and enforcers of the Mexican cartels in the Caribbean Basin.

In the Caribbean Basin the illicit drug traffickers dominate the illicit trade in small arms and human smuggling. The dominance of the Mexican cartels has diametrically changed the expanse and nature of the trafficking of small arms and human smuggling in the Caribbean Basin. Mexican human smuggling organisations have set up shop on the island of Hispaniola, other islands in the Caribbean and in several Central American nations, moving migrants such as Cubans and extra-Caribbean migrants to the US, and Haitians to Brazil.

Small arms shipments supplied by Mexican cartels are now leaving Honduras for sale in the Caribbean island chain, in response to the drying up of the traditionally abundant supply from Venezuela. Mexican cartels have indicated a preference for two operational strategies for the narco-trafficking states in which they have chosen to locate their trafficking operations. One strategy calls for the recruiting of members of the military of the state by extending trafficking franchises to recruited military personnel. In this strategy there is a preference for members of elite units of the military establishment. Mexican cartels prefer to corrupt and recruit members of the military as politicians are transitory.

Secondly, Mexican cartels enter a narcotrafficking state by forming alliances with the narcotrafficking elites of the said state. They offer these elites lucrative deals that are much better than those offered by the Colombians and Venezuelans. Some members of these elites have made the fatal mistake of treating the Mexicans as inferiors. The Mexican cartels, once they have established their links with gangland and others, then move to physically eliminate the local elites with deliberate violence (one can literally lose one's head).

This is how the Mexican cartels radically change the social order of the illicit trades in a narco-trafficking state, instilling a new order in which the State is forced to perpetually battle for its survival because it has lost its capacity to maintain law and order. Daurius Figueira is a lecturer in sociology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. His latest book, 'Cocaine Trafficking in the Caribbean and West Africa in the Era of the Mexican Cartels' (released November 2012), is now available at leading bookshops and online at

He is also the author of 'Cocaine and Heroin Trafficking in the Caribbean: The Case of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana Vol.1' (2004) and 'Cocaine and Heroin Trafficking in the Caribbean: The Case of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela Vol.2' (2006). Email contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.