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V.I., Puerto Rico Push Congress for Caribbean Border Initiative

Top U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico officials presented a united front at Congressional subcommittee hearings, urging Congress to enact a "Caribbean Border Initiative" to tighten border control and rein in the flow of guns and drugs.

Delegate Donna Christensen (D-VI), Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) and Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño (R) all testified before the committee, and Gov. John deJongh (D) submitted written testimony, all saying the two territories’ crime and violence problems are being exacerbated by porous borders and insufficient customs controls.

“We need more federal help to restore the safety of our communities and protect the lives of our children,” Christensen said at Homeland Security Subcommittee Hearing on Oversight, Investigations and Management hearings on U.S. Caribbean Border Security this week. Christensen and Pierluisi asked for more federal assets to stem the tide of drug trafficking and gun violence that has bloated the murder rate in the U.S. Caribbean territories.

“All of the statistics point to a single conclusion: while federal law enforcement officers are doing courageous and often heroic work in Puerto Rico and the U.S.V.I., the federal government as a whole has yet to respond to the public safety crisis in these two territories with anything approaching the sense of urgency that is required,” Pierluisi testified to the subcommittee.

Christensen and Pierluisi decried the lack of a Caribbean Border Strategy akin to the one being deployed on the Southwest border of the United States which unifies federal and local assets and increases the presence of crime fighting agents, according to a statement from Christensen’s office. Fortuño similarly criticized the level of federal engagement.

“We have observed that there is a clear mismatch between the level of drug-related violence occurring along the U.S. Caribbean border and the size and scope of the federal response,” Fortuño said. “This lack of sufficient attention is most blatantly evidenced by the absence of any kind of comprehensive interagency strategy by the federal government to counteract the drug violence and national security threats these criminal networks generate along the U.S. Caribbean Border. We cannot allow this threat to take hold along the U.S. Caribbean Border where drug trafficking networks already have a clearly established supply chain to the states” Fortuño said.

Christensen described a recent major cocaine bust off the coast of St. Croix where the perpetrators escaped because the coast Guard did not have the “fast boats” needed to capture them. She asked Coast Guard Rear Admiral William Lee if there were plans in place to deploy them to the Virgin Islands.

Also calling for a comprehensive strategy, deJongh said federal actions have been inadequate, underfunded and slow.

"The major drug cartels have targeted our islands because our borders are largely unprotected and our mail is typically uninspected. Weaponry is being smuggled into the territories in cargo vessels, fast boats and the U.S. mail," deJongh said in written testimony.

“This is not simply a Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands drug and violence problem," deJongh said. "It is a national crisis that is the result of our success elsewhere, and our failure to secure access to U.S. territories against infiltration by these ever-expanding international drug syndicates. America’s Caribbean communities need the kind of high-level engagement, coordination, and resource availability that has aided the defense of our Southwestern and Northern borders,” deJongh said.

President Barack Obama’s administration’s Caribbean Basin Security Initiative has put some focus on strengthening law enforcement and drug fighting capabilities in the region, but the V.I. and Puerto Rico have been excluded from its development or execution, or from access to that initiative’s funding, according to deJongh.

“Congressional oversight and funding are critical to victory in the Caribbean anti-drug effort,” deJongh said.

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