The ruling threatens US power as a global maritime drug police

Miami (AP) — Lesser-known in this year’s ruling, the Federal Court of Appeals threatens an important weapon in the US war on drugs. Even if the drug isn’t directed to the American coast.

This is the law used to round up and imprison hundreds of foreigners each year. Most often, poor semi-literate fishermen in Latin America that make up the lowest rungs in drug trafficking.

“It is a waste of US taxpayers’ money to experience these costly misfortunes when we play drug police in the world,” said Puerto Rico’s public lawyer’s office, which brought the court’s challenge. Said Eric Boss, who is responsible for.

At issue is the Maritime Drugs Act Enforcement Act, which defines drug smuggling in international waters as a crime against the United States and whenever a vessel is determined to be “non-national”, anywhere at sea. Gives the United States its own right to arrest.

However, the way a vessel is considered stateless can be tricky.

This was the case with Costa Rican plaintiff Jeffri Dávila-Reyes, whose complaint prompted the decision. The Coast Guard chased a speedboat in the western Caribbean Sea in 2015. He and his two cousins ​​allegedly were transporting 5 to 15 kilograms of cocaine.

According to the FBI’s survey summary, they identified their ship as hail from Costa Rica, but there was no document. When the United States asked the Costa Rican government to confirm the ship’s registration, it said it could not confirm or refute the allegations 12 weeks after the bust.

A few weeks later, the man was charged and eventually pleaded guilty to possessing the drug “on board a ship under US jurisdiction.”

However, a committee of three judges from Boston’s First Circuit’s Court of Appeals said in January that one of the provisions of the law (denying the captain’s claim of nationality) crossed the U.S. border. It was ruled that it was an unconstitutional extension of the police power of the United States.

Needless to say, most of the people arrested under the law had never set foot in the United States and had never been charged with trying to import cocaine. In the case of Dávila-Reyes, the cocaine accused of being transported was allegedly headed for Jamaica.

Despite a ruling that abandoned his conviction, Davila Reyes has completed a seven-year sentence for ten years as the Justice Department seeks a retrial by all nine judges in the First Circuit. I was sentenced.

In a recent series of letters from the federal prison to the Associated Press, Davila Reyes smuggled $ 10 a day as a way to escape poverty after years of construction work. I looked back on my involvement only in. He said seizing the opportunity for smuggling offered him $ 6,000.

“No one can blame you for being born poor,” he wrote.

From the moment President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs” in 1971, the US Coast Guard has been at the forefront of campaigns to prevent illegal drugs from entering the United States. Today, we spend more than $ 2 billion annually as part of that effort.

But from almost the beginning, that goal has proven to be elusive.

Cocaine prices, an indicator of supply, have remained at historically lows for over a decade as cocaine production from Colombia soared to record highs. In good years, the US government estimates that only 10% of cocaine shipments off Latin America, where most of the world’s cocaine is trafficked, are actually seized or destroyed.

Despite its poor record, US authorities continue to promote their success at sea. The 2020 Coast Guard reports that maritime deterrence is the most effective way to combat cartels and criminal networks. Since 2017, the amount of cocaine seized or destroyed has exceeded 959 metric tons.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which collects data from the Department of Justice, the number of prosecutions under the Maritime Prohibition Law Enforcement Act surged to 296 last year. This is almost five times the number 10 years ago. However, due to the involvement of multiple defendants in each case, the actual number of foreigners detained at sea last year was 635, the highest total since 2017.

Critics of U.S. drug policy say that when most of such smugglers get jobs because of poverty and a corps of poor compatriots is ready to replace them, it is hardly worth keeping in for a long time. say.

“These are not masterminds like Pablo Escobar and Chapo Guzman,” said Kendra Maxweeney, a geographer at Ohio State University who has spent years studying US drug policy.

Neither the Coast Guard nor the Justice Department commented on Dávila-Reyes’ complaint, but experts say it’s too early to determine a fallout from a groundbreaking ruling.

Currently, Puerto Rico’s Vos office is preparing 14 motions for dismissal in other boat cases on behalf of imprisoned defendants from Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. This ruling is also cited in at least five proceedings outside the First Circuit.

“It’s definitely a gap in armor,” said Roger Cabrera, a lawyer appointed to a Miami court looking for the person who filed one of the appeals. “But like most problems, I’m sure the federal government is already looking for a workaround.”

So far, US law enforcement agencies continue to conduct regular searches and seizures on the high seas, with few signs of concern.

In court filings, U.S. government lawyers say it is impractical to withhold blocking to wait for a clear refusal to register from a foreign country before declaring the vessel stateless. Insisted.

“People involved in bringing dangerous drugs to the United States will be held liable, regardless of their position in the drug distribution network,” said Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. ..


Contact AP’s Global Research Team ([email protected] or