MIAMI ( Associated Press) — A small federal appeals court on this year’s ruling threatened a key weapon in the United States’ war on drugs: a decades-old law that would give the U.S. the widest range of high seas arrests anywhere in the world. Gives rights, even if the drugs are not bound for US shores.
It is a law that is used every year to corner and imprison hundreds of foreigners, mostly poor, semi-literate fishermen from Central and South America, who are at the bottom of the drug trade.
“When we play the role of drug police to the world, making these costly misadventures is a waste of American taxpayer dollars,” said Eric Vos, head of the Office of the Public Defender in Puerto Rico.
The 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 arrest powers anywhere at sea – whenever it determines that a The vessel is “without nationality”.
But how a vessel is deemed stateless sometimes gets messed up.
That was the case for Costa Rican plaintiff Geoffrey Davila-Reyes, whose appeal inspired the ruling. The Coast Guard chased her speedboat in the western Caribbean in 2015 as she and two of her cousins were reportedly carrying five to 15 kilos of cocaine.
According to the FBI’s summary of the investigation, he identified his ship as a Costa Rica resident, but had no documents. When the US asked the Costa Rican government to confirm the ship’s registry, it replied 12 weeks later that it could neither confirm nor deny the claim.
A few weeks later the men were charged and eventually convicted of possessing narcotics “on a ship subject to the jurisdiction of the United States”.
But a three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled in January that one of the law’s provisions — disallowing a captain’s claim of nationality — was an unconstitutional extension of U.S. police powers beyond U.S. borders. .
Remarkably, almost none of those arrested under the law had ever set foot in the US nor were they charged with trying to import cocaine. In the case of Davila-Reyes, the cocaine he was accused of carrying was allegedly taken to Jamaica.
Despite the ruling overturning his conviction, Davila-Reyes remains behind a 10-year sentence in a seven-year sentence as the Justice Department seeks a retrial by all nine First Circuit judges.
In a series of recent letters to The Associated Press from federal prison, Davila-Reyes reflected on how she smuggled in her homeland as a way of escaping poverty after hand-blistering construction work for only $10 a day. joined in. Taking the opportunity to smuggle, he offered them $6,000.
“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 prevent illegal drugs from entering the US TODAY, raising $$ annually as part of that effort. Spends more than 2 billion.
But, almost from the outset, that goal has proved elusive.
Cocaine prices, a gauge of supply, have been hovering at historic lows for more than a decade as cocaine production from Colombia hit record highs. According to the US government’s own estimates, in a good year, barely 10% of cocaine shipments in the waters of Central and South America – where the bulk of the world’s cocaine is smuggled – are actually confiscated or destroyed.
Despite that poor record, US officials continue to tout their success at sea. A 2020 Coast Guard report says maritime intervention is the most effective way to combat cartels and criminal networks. Since 2017, the amount of cocaine he has seized or destroyed is more than 959 metric tons.
According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which collects Justice Department data, prosecutions under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act rose to 296 last year — nearly five times the number a decade ago. But since 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 that most of such traffickers have fallen into jobs because of poverty and are unlikely to be confined for long enough that their poor compatriots are ready to take their place.
“These are not masterminds like Pablo Escobar or Chapo Guzman,” said Kendra McSweeney, a geographer at Ohio State University who has spent years researching American drug policies.
Neither the Coast Guard nor the Justice Department would comment on Davila-Reyes’ appeal, but experts say it is too early to judge the consequences of the historic decision.
Vos’s office in Puerto Rico is currently preparing 14 motions for dismissal in other boat cases on behalf of defendants jailed in Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. The ruling has also been cited in at least five proceedings outside the First Circuit.
“It’s definitely a chime in the armor,” said Roger Cabrera, the court-appointed attorney in Miami who filed the appeal. “But like most messes, I’m sure the federal government is already looking for a solution.”
For now, US law enforcement continues to conduct routine searches and seizures on the high seas with little sign of concern.
In court filings, U.S. government lawyers have partially argued that it would be impractical to wait for an explicit denial of registry from a foreign nation 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 delivery network,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman.
Contact Associated Press’s global investigation team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/.