Puerto Rico’s Border Problem

by John Marino

February 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The fall-out from the military retrenchment in Puerto Rico after the loss of the Navy’s bombing range in Vieques is going beyond the closure of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, slated to be completed by March 31.

The future of radar and other surveillance technologies being operated by the military in Puerto Rico is in jeopardy, as the commonwealth struggles to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the its borders and the rising wave of Dominican migrants, chasing promises of a better life, trying to sneak into Puerto Rican territory.

Last month, the Air Force pulled the plug on the Lajas aerostat, a blimp-like surveillance technology that stood watch over Puerto Rico’s southern scanning for drug smugglers. And at least two other radar systems, which provide coverage to the island’s north and east cost, are in jeopardy as the Navy completes its pullout. With the Navy gone, it’s unclear which federal agency will pick up the tab to continue their operations. One of those systems, located in the El Yunque rainforest, is owned by the Navy, but today is used mostly by the Federal Aviation Administration for air traffic control. The other is operated by the Air Force and sits on Puerto Rico Air National Guard base in Levittown.

The news of the downing of the aerostat broke by The San Juan Star, which published photos of its actual deflation, caught commonwealth government officials by surprise. Citing a 1993 agreement that the Air Force would give the commonwealth six months notice should it decide to shut down the system, and assistance in aiding the commonwealth to operate it should it decide to do so, they insisted they had not been notified aerostat was to be scuttled, and only acknowledged the event after newspapers published the news.

Federal law enforcement officials, quoted by The STAR, said the move stemmed from the Pentagon’s decision to refocus on its central mission, fighting terrorism. It wanted to get out of the business of drug detection, according to the sources.

Administration critics are likely to lay blame for the situation on the Calderón administration, painting the aerostat downing as more backlash from its Vieques stance, when it tried to push for an immediate Navy exit rather than being satisfied with the May 1, 2003 exit the Bush administration said it would abide by. But the truth is much more complicated than that.

For one thing, this is not strictly a beef between the commonwealth and federal governments. D.C.-based Homeland Security officials, quoted by The STAR, said the Air Force decision would harm its ability to guard Puerto Rico’s coasts against drug smugglers and illegal migrants. And federal officials on the island said the south coast was now vulnerable to drug traffickers using airplanes. Also, the Air Force move is part of a larger review of the entire aerostat program. The Pentagon appears to genuinely be rethinking its responsibilities as it focuses more exclusively on terrorism.

Backlash over the aerostat downing may have already prompted a rethinking of the decision in Washington. The Bush budget commencing next October envisions funding the aerostat program on a national level. But whether Congress will pass that one portion of the budget remains to be seen. Ensuring that the program survives the budget process will require huge lobbying efforts by the commonwealth, plus the constant attention of its lone, non-voting member of Congress. And the question of coverage until October is up in the air.

Ever since it came down, Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the Popular Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate, has been furiously trying to re-inflate the aerostat. In a letter to Bush budget director Joshua Bolton, Acevedo Vilá said: "I am aware that terrorist entities, including Al-Qaeda, are emerging in South and Central American, that they developing relationships with drug smuggling organizations and that narco-smuggling routes, including ones in the Caribbean, could soon be exploited for terrorism purposes."

It’s a good strategy, although Acevedo Vilá again appeared surprised when the aerostat came down. His lobbying should have started while it was still afloat.

Whether or not that strategy will work is another issue. But it’s one that all of Puerto Rico should support.

The vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s coasts comes at a particularly bad time. The continuing influx of illegal drugs entering Puerto Rico is a major factor in the island’s sky-high murder rate, as drug dealers engage in bloody turf wars to control the cocaine and heroin smuggled here. The killing is so bad that it is making headlines in national newspapers. It has climbed steadily over the past five years, to 779 deaths last year from 593.

Also, record levels of Dominican migrants are trying to sneak into Puerto Rican territory. More than 1,000 have been apprehended so far this federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The number of detentions so far this year has surpassed last year’s levels. And there are still eight long months before the start of the new fiscal year.

Puerto Rico’s borders appear more vulnerable than ever. They should be a central element in any political status discussions taking place, in either San Juan or Washington.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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