SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Law enforcement agencies have seized sharply increased amounts of suspicious cash in Puerto Rico over the past year, an apparent sign that more drug proceeds are flowing through the U.S. island territory and the Caribbean as a whole, officials say.
Large seizures of money, ranging from the tens of thousands of dollars to more than a million, have become routine in Puerto Rico, where traffickers can take advantage of frequent air and ship traffic to and from the continental United States to move both drugs and money, according to law enforcement officials in the region.
Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, reported seizures of cash rose 68 percent to nearly $2.4 million for the 12 months that ended Sept. 30. The Drug Enforcement Administration says its seizures more than doubled, to about $18 million, for the period. That is just a fraction of what is seized along the U.S.-Mexico border, but it is enough activity for the Department of Justice to label Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands a "major bulk cash movement center" in a recent report.
"Mexico continues to be the No. 1 country for placement of illicit proceeds, but for being a small jurisdiction, comparatively, we're not that far behind," said Angel Melendez, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Puerto Rico, in an interview Monday.
There has been an increase in the U.S. Virgin Islands as well, though the amount confiscated is much less.
The money flowing through the territory reflects a surge in drug trafficking on the island, with a sharp increase in drug seizures and drug-related violence. Puerto Rico has set a record for homicides this year, with more than 1,100 people killed so far. The island's representative in Congress, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, pleaded for more aid during a recent hearing in the House Representatives, saying "We are in a crisis in the Caribbean."
Authorities can only guess at the amount of bulk cash being shipped out of the U.S., with the DEA estimating it at anywhere between $13 billion to $47 billion each year. Criminal networks ship the money overseas to be deposited in countries with weaker financial and government regulation where it is harder to track. For much of the money passing through Puerto Rico, officials say, the destination is usually the nearby Dominican Republic.
Pedro Janer, the acting special agent in charge of the DEA's Caribbean division, said smugglers are likely moving more drugs and money through the region because of increased enforcement along the Mexican border as a result of the Merida Initiative and other anti-drug efforts.
"Every time we put a major squeeze at the border they have to go someplace else," Janer said in an interview. "Well, the second preferred route is the Caribbean. They are always going back and forth."
Most of the money that arrives in Puerto Rico is smuggled in cargo, very little of which is searched, or by couriers on commercial planes. Officials say it is shipped out in ferries and flights, as well as on private yachts, fishing vessels and cruise ships.
The largest single seizure of the year in Puerto Rico occurred in April, when Customs agents found $1.35 million in the door panels of a Jeep Grand Cherokee that had been shipped from Philadelphia on a cargo ship. Melendez said there have been no arrests but the case is still under investigation.
In January, police in a tourist district stopped the owner of a San Juan ice cream shop with nearly $1.2 million in cash in a water cooler and three suitcases in the back of his pickup truck. The man later told investigators he had been paid $10,000 to transport the money by someone he knew only as "Juan." Drug-detection dogs picked up the scent of cocaine from the money, according to court papers.
The driver, who had no criminal record, was never charged, which is common, Janer said. Authorities have little interest in prosecuting couriers, only in obtaining a court order to seize the money and using it to investigate the traffickers.
"It's up to the person who owns the money to come back and tell us how he got it, if he gained the money through legitimate means," he said. "For the most part, once we pull guys over and we take the money away they deny any knowledge of it."
The ice cream shop owner has tried at least to get his truck back. His lawyer argued in court papers that the vehicle wasn't obtained through drug proceeds and the owner had no knowledge of the origins of the money. A judge has not yet ruled on the request.