SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) -- The relationship between a U.S. Senator from New Jersey and a wealthy political benefactor has highlighted gaps in port security in the Dominican Republic, which has become the top transit point for drugs in the Caribbean. And the situation appears to be getting worse.
Authorities in the Dominican Republic seized 9 tons of cocaine last year, the third consecutive record, according to the country's national drug control agency. In January alone, they seized another 3 tons off the country's southern coast.
"It will probably be a record this year as well," Pedro Janer, the acting head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean Division, said in an interview.
The DEA praises the efforts of the Dominican Republic in fighting drugs, and U.S. backing has included the use of an aerial surveillance drone and support of ships and aircraft based in nearby Puerto Rico. But U.S. officials have also repeatedly complained about the need for more security in the ports, where there is only a single large-scale scanner, on loan from the U.S., to search the interior of cargo containers.
Among the critics: U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey who has raised the issue in three Congressional hearings. "I often think about this in a very significant way in my own home state because we know that some of those container ships laden with cocaine, when they leave the Dominican Republic, where do they sail to? Well they very often end up in the Port of Newark and Elizabeth which is the mega-port of the East Coast in my home state of New Jersey," he said in a December 2011 hearing.
His interest has drawn public scrutiny since federal agents recently searched the Florida offices of his largest campaign contributor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, who in August 2011 had purchased a company with a contract to provide increased security at Dominican ports. The 10-year contract, valued at $500 million, was signed in 2002 but suspended two years later by the Dominican government and is tied up in the courts.
Menendez's staff has acknowledged he talked to the State Department and other federal officials about the port deal, and said that's not unusual because he has regularly raised concerns if American companies are not being treated fairly in foreign countries.
"The fact that someone is a donor does not do away with the right or the opportunity to consider whether something is correct or incorrect, to ask questions, raise concerns," Menendez said Thursday in an interview with the Spanish-language television network Univision.
Separately, the senator said on Thursday that his office contacted U.S. health agencies to help resolve a Medicare billing dispute for Melgen, but contended he did not improperly intervene. He earlier acknowledged that he had failed to pay for trips he took on the doctor's private plane and reimbursed about $58,500 for the visits to the Dominican Republic.
The port security contract already was controversial in the Dominican Republic. The American Chamber of Commerce and others there have warned it would increase the cost of shipping and cause cargo delays that would make the country less competitive. Critics have complained that Melgen's company, ICSSI, had no experience in port security.
Teddy Heinsen, president of the Shipping Association of the Dominican Republic, said port security measures such as cargo scanners should be in the hands of government agencies, not a private company that he says lacks the expertise. "We are all going to pay for some X-rays that in reality won't achieve what is promised," he said.
Meanwhile, the flow of drugs through the Dominican Republic has been on the rise, part of a wider surge of smuggling through the Caribbean as traffickers apparently attempt to evade multinational efforts off Central America and along the U.S.-Mexico border, say U.S. and Dominican officials.
The Caribbean in the 1980s was the main smuggling route to the U.S. mainland, but the path shifted west to Mexico in recent years. In 2010, according to statistics provided by the DEA, the Caribbean made up about 5 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States. Over the past year, that has climbed to 8 percent and may reach 10 percent this year, Janer said.
A U.S. military assessment projects that about 6 percent of the cocaine destined for the U.S. this year will pass through the Dominican Republic alone. "It's going to be a huge year. ... The seizures we've had so far corroborate the forecast," he said.
Dominican authorities say the increased seizures are one of a number of signs of progress against drug trafficking. Rolando Rosadao, director of the National Drug Control Agency, says the apparent elimination of clandestine drug flights is another. Nearly 200 smuggling planes from Venezuela and Colombia managed to land in 2007; last year, not one touched down thanks to the aerial surveillance provided by the U.S. and the acquisition of military aircraft from Brazil, he said.
Port security is a longstanding problem. A Spanish citizen arrested in Spain in March 2010, Arturo del Tiempo, was accused of smuggling 8 tons of cocaine to Spain in cargo ships, and is still awaiting trial there. Daniel Foote, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, said in a speech Tuesday to the Shipping Association that it remains a concern.
The two Dominican ports that account for nearly all of the shipping to the U.S. are Haina and Caucedo. But only Caucedo has a container cargo scanner to help U.S. and Dominican agents search for contraband as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's global Container Security Initiative.
Foote said that given the budget problems in the U.S., it is unlikely that the CSI program will be expanded to Haina, but that the U.S. wants to work with the Dominican government to improve security at the port and is looking at measures such as training dogs capable of detecting drugs, cash and explosives. Asked about the ICSSI contract at a speech, he declined to answer, saying the government does not get involved in contractual disputes.
Fox reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico
Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson contributed from Washington.