US power as global drug police on the high seas threatened by court ruling

MIAMI — A low-profile federal appeals court ruling this year threatens a key weapon in America’s war on drugs: a decades-old law that gives the United States sweeping powers to make arrests. on the high seas anywhere in the world, even if the drugs are not destined for US shores.

It is a law that is used to round up and imprison hundreds of foreigners every year, mostly poor, semi-illiterate fishermen from Central and South America who make up the lowest rungs of the drug trade.

“It’s a waste of American taxpayers’ money to have these costly mishaps as we play drug police around the world,” said Eric Vos, head of Puerto Rico’s public defender’s office who has filed the legal challenge.

At issue is the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, which defines drug trafficking in international waters as a crime against the United States and gives the United States unique powers of arrest anywhere on the seas – whenever it determines that a ship is “without nationality”.

But the way a ship is considered stateless sometimes gets messy.

This was the case of the Costa Rican plaintiff Jeffri Dávila-Reyes, whose appeal motivated the decision. The Coast Guard chased his speedboat in the western Caribbean in 2015 when he and two cousins ​​allegedly carried between five and 15 kilos of cocaine.

They identified their vessel as being from Costa Rica, according to the FBI’s investigation summary, but they had no documentation. When the United States asked the Costa Rican government to confirm the ship’s record, the government responded 12 weeks after the sinking that it could neither confirm nor refute the allegation.

A few weeks later, the men were charged and eventually pleaded guilty to possession of narcotics “on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States”.

But a three-judge panel of the Boston First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in January that one of the provisions of the law – dismissing a captain’s nationality claim – was an unconstitutional extension of US police powers. beyond US borders.

It is telling that almost none of those arrested under the law have ever set foot in the United States and been charged with attempting to import cocaine. In the Dávila-Reyes case, the cocaine he was accused of transporting was supposed to be destined for Jamaica.

Despite the ruling that overturned his conviction, Dávila-Reyes remains behind bars for seven years after serving a 10-year sentence as the Justice Department seeks a review by all nine First Circuit judges.

In a series of recent letters to The Associated Press from federal prison, Davila-Reyes explained that he only got involved in smuggling to escape poverty in his homeland after years of construction work in hand for 10 dollars a day. He said trying his luck in smuggling got him $6,000.

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“No one can be blamed for being born poor,” he wrote.

From the time President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971, the US Coast Guard has been at the forefront of the campaign to keep illegal narcotics out of the United States. Today, it spends more than $2 billion a year on this effort.

But, almost from the start, that goal proved elusive.

Cocaine prices, an indicator of supply, have been hovering at historic lows for more than a decade as cocaine production in Colombia hit record highs. In a good year, barely 10% of cocaine shipments in the waters off Central and South America – where most of the world’s cocaine is trafficked – are actually seized or destroyed, according to the government’s own estimates. US government.

Despite this poor record, U.S. officials continue to tout their success at sea. A 2020 Coast Guard report said at-sea interdictions are the most effective way to combat cartels and criminal networks. Since 2017, the amount of cocaine seized or destroyed exceeds 959 metric tons.

Prosecutions under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act skyrocketed last year to 296 — nearly five times the number a decade ago, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which collects Department of Justice data. But as each case involves multiple defendants, the actual number of foreigners detained at sea last year was 635, the highest number since 2017.

Critics of US drug policy say most of these smugglers have fallen on the job because of poverty and are hardly worth locking up for so long when legions of their poor countrymen are ready to take their square.

“These aren’t masterminds like Pablo Escobar or Chapo Guzman,” said Kendra McSweeney, an Ohio State University geographer who has spent years researching US drug policy.

Neither the Coast Guard nor the Justice Department would comment on Dávila-Reyes’ appeal, but experts say it’s too early to judge the fallout from the landmark decision.

Currently, Vos’ office in Puerto Rico is preparing 14 motions to dismiss in other boating cases on behalf of imprisoned defendants from Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. The decision has also been cited in at least five proceedings outside of the First Circuit.

“It’s definitely a chink in the armor,” said Roger Cabrera, a Miami court-appointed attorney researching who filed one of the appeals. “But like most loopholes, I’m sure the feds are already looking for a workaround.”

For now, US law enforcement continues to conduct regular searches and seizures on the high seas with few signs of concern.

In court filings, U.S. government lawyers argued in part that it would be impractical to suspend bans on waiting for an unequivocal denial of registration from a foreign country before declaring a vessel stateless. .

“Anyone involved in bringing dangerous drugs into the United States will be held accountable, regardless of their position in the drug distribution network,” Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman said.

By JOSHUA GOODMAN, Associated Press

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