by Alice Pistolesi and Maurizio Sacchi

Latin America and the Caribbean represent about 8% of the world’s population but account for 29% of all homicides committed on the planet each year. According to a report by the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Control), several Caribbean countries experienced a significant increase in homicidal violence in 2021 and 2022 due to crime, drug trafficking, access to firearms and the expansion and fragmentation of gangs seeking to control territory.

In 2021, 8 of the 10 countries with the highest homicide rates in the world were in Latin America and the Caribbean. The highest levels of violence in the region are found in the dynamics of control over illegal markets. This is compounded by weak rule of law and growing social inequality. Some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean also respond to violence with “states of emergency,” deploying the military alongside the police and involving citizens in crime control. This dossier provides a brief overview of some of the most critical situations in the Caribbean region, starting with the case of Haiti, which is the most dramatic because of the terrible humanitarian crisis that is unfolding.


* photo by Colin Davis on Unsplash, below is a graph of homicide rates from the Unodc 2023 report

A strategic route

In the 1980s, according to a UNODC report, the Caribbean was the preferred route for Latin American drug traffickers, with 75% of all cocaine destined for the United States passing through the region. Following several US drug operations in the Caribbean, traffickers moved on to Central America, which became the main transit corridor to the US. By 2010, the proportion of US cocaine transiting the region had fallen to less than 10 %.

However, since 2010, the Caribbean route has reemerged, and in 2013 the flow of cocaine through the Caribbean to the US reached its highest level in a decade. The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that by 2020, approximately 24% of all cocaine shipments in the Western Hemisphere will pass through the Caribbean. Today, large quantities of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs pass through the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Dutch Caribbean. According to Insightcrime, a think tank that studies issues related to organised crime and citizen security in the Americas, the main methods used by traffickers include shipping drugs in commercial containers, on luxury or ‘fast’ boats, in private aircraft and on commercial flights using human couriers. Trafficking in the region is facilitated by long coastlines that are difficult to patrol and widespread corruption among governments and security forces. The remote Caribbean coastlines of continental countries are also strategic points for drug shipment or storage, partly due to their limited infrastructure and latent state presence.








Haiti’s humanitarian crisis

Haiti is now on the brink of disaster. Following the storming of the country’s main port, through which the vast majority of goods pass, more than 300 humanitarian containers, on which the lives of much of the population depend, are at risk of being looted. The crisis extends far beyond Port-au-Prince, affecting communities throughout Haiti, with more than 360,000 people displaced across the country. For the nearly 100,000 displaced people living in temporary sites, conditions are dramatic, with no access to food, health care, water, psychological support or sanitation.

There are around 170,000 displaced children, double the number in 2022. “In Haiti, children and families are enduring relentless waves of brutal violence that bring new horrors every day, the loss of loved ones, homes destroyed by fire,” said Unicef, which estimates that 3 million children will need humanitarian assistance by the end of 2024. To respond effectively, the organisation is appealing for $221.7 million.  A total of $674 million is needed to support some 3.6 million Haitians – a 12 per cent increase from 2023. In addition, 613,000 migrants were forcibly returned to Haiti from neighbouring countries in March, 46% more than the previous month. Only 3,000 of them received humanitarian aid.

On 11 March, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) took note of the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry and convened members and international partners Brazil, Canada, France, Mexico, the United Nations and the United States to discuss the crisis in Haiti. It announced its commitment to a Transitional Government Arrangement to pave the way for a peaceful transfer of power, a short-term security action plan and the path to free and fair elections.

The Caucedo hub

The port of Caucedo is the largest cocaine seizure point in the Dominican Republic. This primacy is due to the Dominican Republic’s strategic location between the producing countries of South America, the United States and European markets. In addition to cocaine shipped directly to Caucedo by container ships, drugs are also brought to the isle’s shores by speedboats and fishing boats. Colombia and Venezuela are only about a thousand miles (1,600 kilometres) apart. The crews, known as transporters, are often a mix of Dominicans, Venezuelans and Colombians.

The transporters dock on the deserted beaches of the Dominican Republic’s southern coast, mainly in the provinces of Barahona and San Pedro de Macorís. As the main port of the Dominican Republic, Caucedo is a hotspot for drug shipments leaving the country for Europe. According to an in-depth investigation by InSight Crime, Caucedo port authorities admit that drugs are passing through and shipments are being contaminated, despite strict security measures. Port authorities say they have spent millions of dollars to improve port security and protocols. The increase in drug seizures in 2021 led to the port of Caucedo being certified under the US Container Security Initiative and the Dominican Republic receiving public recognition from the US State Department for its “political will to reduce the flow of drugs into the country”. However, these efforts have not been enough to stop the trafficking.


Gang power in Haiti

In 2021, after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse by a group of foreign mercenaries, Ariel Henry took over as interim prime minister. A year later, a battle between the G9 and G-Pèp gangs broke out in the shantytown of Cité Soleil, leaving at least 60 people dead.  A coalition of gangs then set up a blockade around Haiti’s largest fuel depot, and the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Jimmy Chérizier “Barbecue”, one of the country’s gang leaders. In 2023, the Wagner Group expressed interest in intervening in Haiti.

In March 2024, Henry was prevented from returning to Haiti from Kenya, where he was supposed to receive help from the Kenyan police. So far this year, gang violence has claimed 1,554 lives. Gangs use sexual violence as a means of control, women are raped during gang invasions of neighbourhoods, gangs currently control about 80 per cent of the capital Port-au-Prince, all the ports and the international airport are manned by police but all airlines have suspended flights.

Jamaica’s crucial role

Jamaican authorities seized more than 1,500 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a container on a ship in the port of Kingston on 14 January 2024. Authorities believe the cocaine originated in Colombia and was being sent to Jamaica for shipment to the United States or Europe. It was one of the largest in the country’s history, but the latest in a growing list of large-scale seizures.

Indeed, Jamaica appears to be playing an increasingly important role in the international drug trade. In late December, the JDF (Jamaican Defence Force, responsible for maritime drug interdiction) intercepted a speedboat carrying about half a tonne of cocaine as it approached Jamaica’s southeast coast, allegedly from Colombia. In September, a joint team of Jamaican and US counter-narcotics officials seized about 500 kilos of cocaine at the Ian Fleming International Airport in northern Jamaica. The cocaine was destined for Canada.

Three seizures of approximately 2.7 tonnes of cocaine, compared with 1.3 tonnes seized by the JDF at airports and ports in 2021. According to InSight Crime’s findings, Jamaica has for years played a central role along the Caribbean routes. It is accessible from Colombia and Central America and offers direct routes to the US, Canada and the United Kingdom Cocaine is then shipped in containers, hidden in airline cargo, transported by human couriers or sent through the post.

The growing supply of cocaine, supported by a 43% increase in coca cultivation in Colombia in 2021, has likely increased Jamaica’s potential as a cocaine trafficking hub. According to a 2022 US State Department report, Jamaica has the necessary elements to play a greater role in international drug transportation. The country has over 150 unmanned seaports and is a major hub for shipping goods.

Partly as a result of drug trafficking, Jamaica remains one of the most violent islands in the world. Although the homicide rate is falling slightly, it remains one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere. According to the Jamaica Constabulary Force, there were 109 murders between 1 January and 3 February 2023, while in 2024 there were 84. 1,393 people were killed in 2023, 118 fewer than in 2022.