KINGSTON, Jamaica – Assault rifles at the ready, police in a speedboat scan the coastline as they slice through the slate-gray water, aware that the rocky shorelines and fishing villages that line parts of southern Jamaica are not always very sleepy these days.
Seizures of South American cocaine in Jamaica have doubled since last year, and that has prompted island authorities to step up their game, dispatching more patrols to locations that haven't seen such sustained law enforcement activity in years.
"All these areas are constantly monitored for illegal contraband. We keep our ears close to the ground," said Det. Cpl. Orville Welsh, the lead officer in the patrol boat, after his team searched a fisherman's canoe and a village of wooden shacks for drugs and guns.
It's not just Jamaica that's on alert. The central Caribbean as a whole seems to be coming back into favor with transnational drug cartels, with authorities reporting sharp increases in cocaine seizures and scrambling resources to contain the apparent surge.
Long a smuggler's paradise, the Caribbean was eclipsed by Mexico as the prime drug route to the U.S. in the 1990s when Colombian cartels retreated amid stronger enforcement off Florida. In recent years, cocaine seized in the Caribbean dropped to around 5 percent of the total found by U.S. authorities.
Activity is picking up, possibly a result of the violent drug war in Mexico and Central America. The frequency and size of cocaine seizures in the Caribbean, particularly off the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, have been steadily climbing. In the first half of the year, Caribbean seizures accounted for 14 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA says 87 tons (79 metric tons) of cocaine were seized in the Caribbean corridor in 2012, nearly double the year-earlier total. The high pace is continuing, with 44 tons (40 metric tons) seized in the first half of this year.
"I don't think it's just a one- or two-year blip," said Vito Guarino, special agent in charge of the DEA's Caribbean division.
DEA officials and others say the Caribbean surge is partly a result of efforts such as the U.S.-led Central America Regional Security Initiative, launched in January 2012, which increased enforcement in Central America, often the first stop on the export route for South American cocaine. At the same time, there was a crackdown along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Whenever those two get squeezed, the movement is toward the Caribbean," said Ricardo Martinez, an associate police superintendent in Puerto Rico.
Islanders fear growing bloodshed and drug use. "The violence is overwhelming and it has been increasing," said a man who would give his name only as Kike in La Perla, a slum perched above the sea in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. "Young kids who are coming up the ranks think they're James Bond."
A similar anxiety is expressed by a few residents of the tiny fishing village of Forum, on Jamaica's southern coast, where the main road leads past rickety wooden shacks to a rocky shoreline lined with small boats.
"If the drugs take over, this place will never be the same. It will be bad, bad," fisherman Oneal Burke said as he scaled fresh red snapper.
Police in Puerto Rico say about 75 percent of homicides — which hit a record of 1,135 in 2011 — are tied to drug trafficking in the U.S. territory of 3.7 million people.
In recent years, smugglers often took off by plane from Venezuela en route to Honduras or elsewhere in Central America. U.S. officials say those clandestine flights have dropped by 33 percent since 2011. Some of that slack is being picked up by speedboats racing across the Caribbean.
Angel Melendez, a Puerto Rico-based special agent for Homeland Security Investigations of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, said cocaine is increasingly trafficked in larger amounts directly north from Venezuela on boats that refuel at sea during the roughly two-day voyage. Just last week, federal authorities seized more than 1,100 kilograms (2,425 pounds) of cocaine from a speedboat off St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, just east of Puerto Rico.
"It's a bigger risk, but it's a bigger profit," Melendez said.
The Dominican Republic is now the region's biggest transit point for drugs. A U.S. military assessment projected that 6 percent of the cocaine destined for the U.S. this year will pass through the Dominican Republic alone.
In Jamaica, authorities saw seizures doubled to 354 kilograms (780 pounds) in the first half of the year, according to police statistics. Police Commissioner Owen Ellington says he fears transnational criminals are funneling resources into Jamaica because they see the country as "a soft spot that can be exploited."
But Guarino and regional anti-drug agents say they are confident that island governments and law enforcement can effectively battle smugglers with assistance. DEA figures show Caribbean drug seizures doubling from 2009 to this year, and increased seizures are perceived as a sign of progress against traffickers.
"We're here, we're ready, we're focused," Guarino said. "We know how it's coming and so I think we're equipped to handle it."