WASHINGTON - In the normally tranquil islands of the Caribbean, U.S. and foreign authorities have noticed, there has been a slow, and bloody, shift in the drug trade during the past few years.
Colombian drug traffickers, meeting resistance at the United States' southwest border, have increased their distribution in the chain of islands. From there, they smuggle the drugs to the United States.
"We're definitely starting to see a shift into the Caribbean," said Michael S. Vigil, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's Caribbean division. "It's coming back this way."
Last year, for the first time in a decade, more cocaine entered the United States through the Caribbean than across the border with Mexico, U.S. law enforcement officials said.
Drug officials and experts on drug trafficking say the shift has occurred for several reasons, including stepped-up enforcement along the border with Mexico.
They say the Mexican traffickers have also become more powerful and the Colombians - the world's major supplier of illegal drugs - are trying to avoid their stranglehold.
"The trend in recent months is toward increased trafficking in the Caribbean," said Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the U.S. military's Southern Command in Miami. "They are reacting."
Officials estimate that about 500 tons of cocaine annually leave for the United States from Colombia, which grows about 60 percent of the world's cocaine and handles about 90 percent of its refined product.
In the early 1990s, Colombian traffickers were smuggling almost 70 percent of their cocaine through the southwest U.S. border, the DEA says.
Last year, of the 500 tons, U.S. officials say, drug-flow estimates show that about 54 percent was destined for the southwest border and 43 percent through the Caribbean. Now some drug-trafficking experts say the percentage today is much closer to 50-50.
Members of Congress and the Clinton administration say the best way to attack the Colombian drug lords is on their own turf by assisting the country's armed forces. Last month, Congress passed a $1.3 billion aid package, which includes 60 helicopters and hundreds of U.S. troops to root out drug production from the Andean jungle.
Another part of that drug-interdiction effort involves countries that historically have been conduits for Colombian drugs, said U.S. officials, pointing to recent efforts by Mexican law enforcement.
In the past few years, Mexican authorities have fired more than 1,000 corrupt federal police officers and begun attacking high-level corruption. Those actions have made U.S. law enforcement officials less cautious about sharing information with Mexican police, leading to increased cooperation, U.S. authorities say.
Another reason for the shift, experts say, is the high price Colombian traffickers must pay their Mexican counterparts to use their routes. In some cases, Colombian suppliers must give more than half their product to Mexican traffickers. In contrast, Caribbean traffickers charge about 20 percent, authorities say.
Also, the traffickers have targeted Europe more and can more efficiently transport their drugs by consolidating the U.S.-European smuggling routes through the Caribbean, experts say.
All those reasons point to the Colombian drug lords' decisions to return to their mainstay route form the 1980s: the Caribbean, said Bruce Bagley, an expert on drug-trafficking and a professor of international relations at the University of Miami.
"This continued the evolution of the process," Bagley said. "They began to look for new linkages and re-establish old ones. The Caribbean is a fertile ground."
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Colombian traffickers smuggled most of their drugs through the Caribbean islands, using small planes to drop bails of drugs for pickup by waiting boats.
But when authorities began targeting those smugglers, the dealers moved much of their trafficking to Mexico, which was rife with corruption and has a lengthy border with the United States.
Now, they are returning for the same reasons they used the Caribbean routes before: Vast seas, dozens of nations, miles of coastline and proximity to Colombia and other South American countries are a smuggler's delight.
"There are so many islands," said Vigil of the DEA. "It's very difficult to control all the borders."
Two areas pose significant problems, U.S. authorities say - Haiti and Puerto Rico.
Haiti, only 400 miles away, has a very weak police force, authorities say. Last year about 67 metric tons of cocaine moved through Haiti, a 24 percent increase over 1998's 54 metric tons, the State Department says.
Once in Haiti, the drugs are smuggled across to the other half of the island of Hispanola, the Dominican Republic, where middlemen put them on large container ships bound for the United States or for other islands.
Traffickers also have been increasingly targeting Puerto Rico, which is 80 miles from Haiti and 600 from Colombia.
Because Puerto Rico is U.S. territory, customs officials do not inspect flights to mainland cities nor do they inspect ships leaving from San Juan's busy port for the United States.
But Puerto Rico isn't just a way station. Instead of paying middlemen in dollars, dealers often give them drugs to sell or use, leading to increased addiction rates and more violence.
An island of almost 4 million people, Puerto Rico recorded more than 560 homicides in 1999 - 80 percent drug-related, DEA officials said. This month, agents arrested 40 members of a major drug-trafficking organization in Puerto Rico that was responsible for distributing more than $1 billion in cocaine and heroin a year and killing dozens of people.
In the raid, federal authorities arrested Miguel O'Connor-Colon, known as La Cabra, "the goat," whom they accuse of running a vicious drug organization responsible for at least 30 murders in the year before the raid.
To stem the increased flow of drugs through the Caribbean, U.S. officials have added agents and reconnaissance flights, and are trying to build better ties with local police agencies.
But outside experts say those efforts will simply lead to different drug routes.
"It's called 'push down, pop up,'" said Terry Parssinen, co-author of the 1998 book, "Webs of Smoke: Smugglers, Warlords, Spies, and the History of the International Drug Trade."
"When you apply pressure in the Caribbean, then traffickers move to another place," Parssinen said. "As long as demand for drugs in the United States is strong, the enforcement possibilities are going to be strictly limited."