U.S.

What Is Puerto Rico's Role in the Drug Trade?

cocaine
Cocaine disguised as "gifts" was confiscated by New York City law enforcement agents in an August bust. Office of The Special Narcotics Prosector of New York City

Law enforcement officials recently announced the arrest of five people on charges of shipping $225,000 worth of cocaine from Puerto Rico to New York City. Sent as express mail through the U.S. Postal Service, the contraband was cached in five “gift-wrapped boxes and packed alongside children’s toys,” the officials said this week.

Each box contained a kilo of coke.

This wasn’t the first time traffickers sending drugs between Puerto Rico and New York City have used kids as cover.

In April 2014, law enforcement officials announced the arrest of several people on charges of smuggling cocaine and oxycodone through the mail--and the officials alleged they sometimes used children's products such as Spongebob bedding to secret these illicit items. (In this case, prosecutors also said the alleged traffickers used daycare centers as covers for their criminal organization.)

Newsweek spoke to several drug enforcement officials to learn more about the drug trade between Puerto Rico and New York City.

The city’s special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget G. Brennan, says Puerto Rico’s political and geographic positions--it’s a U.S. commonwealth and an island that's in close proximity to the States--can be advantageous to drug traffickers. Because Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., people and packages traveling from there to the States don’t face the same scrutiny as those traveling from foreign nations. Travelers from Puerto Rico to the 50 states and the District of Columbia don’t pass through U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoints.

Because Puerto Rico is an island, there are virtually “limitless” points of entry for traffickers. Plus, Puerto Rico is close to the States, meaning there is ample transportation to and from the commonwealth. (Despite the many points of origin, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman tells Newsweek that one thing working in law enforcement's favor is that, unlike the U.S.-Mexico border, there isn’t a constant flow of vehicles.)

“Puerto Rico is not only a part of the U.S., but it's also an island with a fairly close nexus to some of the more prolific trafficking centers,” Brennan says, explaining that “the ability to get drugs like cocaine or heroin from their point of origin, which is generally South America, to Puerto Rico is pretty simple.”

Brennan says postal shipments of drugs from Puerto Rico to the U.S. happen a lot.

“This type of thing--the packages containing cocaine and the packages originating in Puerto Rico, that is a scenario that we've seen repeatedly through the years,” Brennan says. “Using children's toys as a method of concealing drugs is also quite common.”

“It makes sense,” Brennan says, explaining: “Who's going to tear open what appears to be a child's birthday present? If you’re a postal inspector, are you really going to want to tear into that package?”

Brennan says authorities’ best bet in combating these shipments is through more rigorous inspections.  Rather than a whack-a-mole approach, ramped up inspections can help them cultivate more useful intel--figuring out if these packages are coming from a particular post office, for example.