Cayman’s war on drugs

| 17/04/2008

By Wendy Ledger (Friday, 17 April 2008)

The international illegal drug trade is estimated to be worth more
than US$322 billion per year, according to the most recent United
Nations statistics, significantly more than the Gross Domestic Product
of over three quarters of the world’s nation states. Around 5% of the
global population uses drugs at some point during the course of a year
and it is by far the most profitable illicit international business.

 The Cayman Islands, like every other nation, is impacted by
misuse as well as drug trafficking and it is the Royal Cayman Islands
Police Service (RCIPS), in conjunction with HM Customs, that faces the
consequences of this tenacious and profitable trade. From handling
those who suffer the multiple social and anti-social problems of
addiction, to seizing the substances that find their way into our
waters and on our streets, the RCIPS is at the front line. Leading the
charge is Kurt Walton, head of the Drug Task Force (DTF), who notes
that, since he started his career in the police service, fighting this
war has never become any easier.

“The fight against drugs is not necessarily a police problem; it is a
social problem but there is no doubt that it has become a police
problem,” he said. “We cannot, however, address this issue purely
through policing. It requires a multi-agency approach.”

Regardless of the need for support from Health Services, the Education
Department, community leaders and other sectors of the community, on a
day-to-day basis it is down to Walton and his men to tackle the bulk
of the problem, and it’s the DTF team that is under pressure to
achieve results.  In 2007, of the 350 charges made relating to
drug offences, the vast majority, around 300, were for possession and
consumption, or what are termed by the RCIPS as level one offences.
Level two and three offences, which are concerned with dealing and
trafficking, accounted for around 50 of the charges, which Walton
acknowledges is disappointing.

“I would be the first to admit that I would like to see more level 2
and 3 drug offenders arrested, charged and convicted,” saidWalton.
“This is part of the RCIPS DTF strategic plan for 2007- 2010. Last
year we seized over 7,700 pounds of marijuana, arrested 11 persons for
importation and being concerned in the importation of drugs, whilst
seizing two canoes in the process. Have we managed to catch the level
3 major traffickers and financiers? Probably not as successfully as we
would have hoped for – I would say that it is always going to prove
more difficult – getting the ‘bigger fish’.”

He explained that netting these so called bigger fish is difficult, as
they are rarely the ones getting their hands dirty. “Perhaps I could
compare it to the way management works. The orders are usually sent
from the top, but you never see them physically doing the manual
labor. We would like to see persons who are at the lower end of the
chain in these organizations come forward and work with us in a very
discreet manner. By doing so, we can actually get to the heart of the
organization,” Walton added.

Getting those at the bottom of the chain to cooperate, however, is not
easy in any circumstances but it is even more challenging for Walton
working in a small community such as Cayman, as it is difficult to get
witnesses to appear in court and more difficult to gather
evidence. 

“We do not encourage the use of witnesses to testify against persons
involved in the drug trade. We have a very robust intelligence
gathering system that seeks to protect the identity of witnesses and
informants. There are exceptional circumstances where we may have to
use a witness in a drug case, but these types of cases are limited to
those witnesses who themselves are co-defendants; for example, ‘drug
mules’ who will testify against the named recipient of the drug.”

Protecting witnesses from the violence associated with the drug trade
and organised crime is difficult without a witness protection
programme.  Walton believes that if the RCIPS could manage to
secure MOUs with other jurisdictions, in particular the UK, it would
be possible to offer witness protection to those higher up the chain
that may want ‘out’ of the drug business.

“If we could offer a guaranteed secure witness protection programme,
we might see people willing to expose major drug trafficking. The
larger movement of drugs is associated with organized crime, so the
only way we could get this is to offer secure protection through
outside agencies,” he said.

Moreover, in a small community where everyone knows everyone’s
business and everyone’s face Walton has to be very creative with
resources when running undercover operations.

“It is almost impossible to use local officers for any kind of
undercover operation, so we utilize officers who come to us on
secondment from outside agencies that have this kind of experience.”

He also noted the it takes time as well as a lot of resources to
gather the necessary evidence to ensure a charge will result in a
conviction for those dealing in large quantities. He said that in one
recent operation that resulted in a conviction, it took more than
three weeks of a concentrated operations to arrest  just one
dealer.

Cayman’s drug problems, like other jurisdictions, are multifaceted as
we have both a local and a trans-shipment market. Although the local
market is considerably smaller, Walton says that his team has seized
substantial quantities of ganja destined for local use, although
normally the larger seizures are in transit. But last year the DTF
seized two canoes in separate operations totaling over 1,100 pounds of
marijuana destined to be sold on the streets of Cayman.

Alongside drugs usually come guns, and Walton explained that there are
two supply routes for them. “These routes are via the Jamaican canoes
and go-fast vessels, and the vessels fishing off the banks of Central
America. Our partners HM Customs have had success in seizing firearms
and drugs from these fishing vessels in the past,” he explained,
adding that containers are often used for getting the drugs out, and
in 2003 the DTF seized 19,971 pounds of marijuana, of which 14,000+
pounds were found in shipping containers for export. 

By partnering with the Port Authority and HM Customs, the DTF is
continuing to tackle the container import/export movement and the
Marine Unit will be up to its full potential in a few months with the
addition of more vessels for border patrol.  “This should assist
greatly with the Jamaican canoe problem,” Walton said.

Although not wishing to point the finger at any one nation, Walton
indicated that one of the most significant problems facing the DTF was
the Jamaican canoes, although drugs do come from Central and South
American countries.  “Last year an individual was arrested in St
Andres, Colombia, for attempting to export out of that country a
significant amount of cocaine. That individual was about to get on a
plane destined to Grand Cayman,” said Walton. “As well, last year our
partners, the Customs Narcotics division seized several kilos of
cocaine smuggled into the Cayman Islands from Honduras.”

The recent incident of an apparent drug mule death from an overdose is
nothing new to Cayman when it comes to means of trafficking, but
Walton noted it is less common these days as a result of the right
training.

“This was a common method used in the mid to late 1990’s, but Customs
and DTF officers received training on profiling such persons, which
led to a significant amount of success,” he said. “Drug trends change
with time like any other business, so the recent events have only
resurfaced. These matters are normally first dealt with by the Customs
Narcotics Division, seeing that the airport is the first point of
entry. I want to stress, however, that these two individuals were
valid work permit holders in Cayman and not here as visitors. A rigid
visa policy by our immigration partners may have curtailed some of
these issues experienced in the past.”

 Aside from being a transshipment point, Cayman also has its own
street drug problems. ganja, cocaine and crack cocaine remain Cayman’s
drugs of choice but Walton says we are also seeing significant
quantities of ecstasy. Crack cocaine is the most problematic and
cannabis is the most widely used.

The local trade is connected to local gangs, and Walton admits that
the recent spate of stabbings and shootings is almost certainly
associated with gangs and drug territory. “As long as there is a
demand for drugs, someone is going to supply. Our local drug scene is
no different. There will always be rivalry within these organizations
and that is because money is usually the common denominator. People
are going to rip each other off and that is where your problems start.
Unfortunately, unlike a legitimate business contract dispute, drug
dealers resort to violence in order to settle their problems. This has
an immense impact, especially on a small society like ours.”

He also noted that Cayman, like all western societies, suffers from
drug-induced crime, and even with our low crime levels most of it is
drug related. He said that a report by Yolande C. Forde, a consultant
criminologist, found that drug traffickers represented the largest
percentage of the prison populace in Cayman and that almost three
quarters of the inmates interviewed said they used drugs.

“The report showed that 64.8% of inmates were incarcerated for drug
related crimes.  More alarming is that a higher percentage of
drug inmates first entering the Criminal Justice System were between
the ages of 15 and 19 years,” said Walton, who added that this
illustrated the need for an holistic approach in future drug strategy.

“We must take a look at the overall problem by addressing a
Prevention, Intelligence, Proactive and Partnerships (PIPP) strategic
approach. What troubles me most is how much more acceptable marijuana
usage is growing amongst our youth. In most instances, these
youngsters don’t recognize marijuana use as harmful, but one look at
the survey above contradicts this. The trouble with any drug is that,
in most instances, persons will want to try a harder drug to get a
different high. As such, we have seen persons graduate from marijuana
smokers to crack cocaine smokers. I need not go into details on the
problems associated with crack cocaine.”

Walton is also pleased that the Criminal Justice System is beginning
to utilize the drug courts as a way to address the issue of addiction
rather than just punishment. This special court service will also help
the DTF gather relevant information. Walton said that the country
needs to know more about the levels of drug misuse and addiction to
create relevant polices and deal with the social problems. He noted
that, in his experience, drugs are at the root of a huge percentage of
crime in Cayman, and he said there was a pressing need to help people
out of addiction and dependency on drugs

 In an ideal world, with no budget or policy restrictions on how
he could fight the war on drugs, Walton notes that he would like to
see a much wider approach to the problem and that requires the
community to accept that Cayman, like almost every other country in
the world, has a drug problem and that we need more research.

“The fact that we have seen a gun culture creeping into our society
merits an analysis of the entire problem. If I had an unlimited
budget, my suggestion would be to inject more funding into information
gathering, a massive injection into our technical capabilities,
training and hiring narcotics officers, an air wing, a marine unit
solely dedicated to border protection and drug interdiction, constant
operations utilizing outside agencies, MOUs in place with outside
agencies for witness protection, and a significant injection of funds
into a drug prevention strategy,” Walton said. 

He said that he believes he could build a good case to create a drugs
entity similar to that of the DEA in the US, with an independent
budget. “I guess you could call it the CIDEA (Cayman Islands Drug
Enforcement Agency). Of course, such an entity would come with a lot
of scrutiny and, as such, would require an experienced director in
this field, who is held accountable and answers to the Governor and
Chief Secretary. I know what I am suggesting here sounds like a break
away from the RCIPS, and as such I expect some raised eyebrows. But,
things happen in the drug underworld that is not quite so obvious on
the surface, and sometimes these types of entities are best suited to
discover those underlying issues,” Walton
explained.      

“On the realistic side, the fact that the current government has
provided significant funding for a new Marine and DTF base in addition
to more vessels has certainly been welcomed. I am anxiously awaiting
the arrival of the new helicopter as well, which will be a huge boost
in our arsenal.”

Category: Special Reports

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