Ruling threatens US power as world’s high-seas drug police

May 4, 2022, 9:29 PM | Updated: May 5, 2022, 9:59 am
In this photo obtained from U.S. federal court records, Jeffri Dávila-Reyes, third from left, and ...

In this photo obtained from U.S. federal court records, Jeffri Dávila-Reyes, third from left, and two others hold their hands in the air as they are intercepted in the Caribbean Sea on Oct. 29, 2015. Dávila-Reyes says he’s still mystified how he ended up serving hard time in a U.S. federal prison. His cocaine bust at sea was closer to his homeland of Costa Rica than the United States, and the few kilos of drugs he was carrying were bound for Jamaica rather than American shores. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

(U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

MIAMI (AP) — A little-noticed federal appeals court ruling this year threatens a key weapon in the United States’ war on drugs: A decades-old law that gives the U.S. broad authority to make high-seas arrests anywhere in the world, even if the drugs aren’t bound for American shores.

It’s a law that’s used to round up and imprison hundreds of foreigners every year, mostly poor, semi-literate fishermen from Central and South America who make up the drug trade’s lowest rungs.

“It is a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars to have these costly misadventures as we play drug police to the world,” said Eric Vos, head of the public defender’s office in Puerto Rico that brought the court challenge.

At issue is the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, which defines drug smuggling in international waters as a crime against the United States and gives the U.S. unique arrest powers anywhere on the seas — whenever it determines a vessel is “without nationality.”

But how a vessel is deemed stateless sometimes gets messy.

The was the case for the Costa Rican plaintiff Jeffri Dávila-Reyes, whose appeal prompted the ruling. The Coast Guard chased down his speedboat in the western Caribbean in 2015 as he and two cousins were allegedly transporting five to 15 kilos of cocaine.

They identified their vessel as hailing from Costa Rica, according to the FBI’s summary of the investigation, but they lacked any documentation. When the U.S. asked the Costa Rican government to confirm the vessel’s registry, it responded 12 weeks after the bust that it could neither confirm nor refute the claim.

A few weeks later the men were charged and eventually pleaded guilty to possessing narcotics “on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”

But a three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled in January that one of the law’s provisions — disavowing a captain’s claim of nationality — were an unconstitutional extension of U.S. policing powers beyond America’s borders.

Tellingly, almost none of those arrested under the law had ever set foot in the U.S. nor were they charged with trying to import cocaine. In Dávila-Reyes’ case, the cocaine he was accused of transporting was purportedly headed to Jamaica.

Despite the ruling that threw out his conviction, Dávila-Reyes remains behind bars seven years into a 10-year sentence as the Justice Department seeks reconsideration by all of the First Circuit’s nine judges.

In a series of recent letters to The Associated Press from federal prison, Davila-Reyes reflected on how he only got involved in smuggling as a way to escape poverty in his homeland after years of hand-blistering construction work for $10 a day. He said taking a chance on smuggling offered him $6,000.

“Nobody can be blamed for being born poor,” he wrote.

From the moment President Richard Nixon declared “war on drugs” in 1971, the U.S. Coast Guard has been at the forefront of the campaign to stop illegal narcotics from entering the U.S. Today, it spends more than $2 billion annually as part of that effort.

But, almost from the start, that goal has proven elusive.

Cocaine prices, a gauge of supply, have been hovering at historical lows for more than a decade as cocaine production from Colombia has soared to record highs. In a good year, barely 10% of cocaine shipments in the waters off Central and South America — where the bulk of the world’s cocaine is trafficked — are actually seized or destroyed, according to the U.S. government’s own estimates.

Despite that poor record, U.S. officials continue to tout their success at sea. A 2020 Coast Guard report said at-sea interdictions are the most effective way to combat cartels and criminal networks. Since 2017, the amount of cocaine it has seized or destroyed exceeds 959 metric tons.

Prosecutions under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act exploded last year to 296 — nearly five times the number a decade ago, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which collects Justice Department data. But since each case involves multiple defendants, the actual number of foreigners detained at sea last year was 635 — the highest tally since 2017.

Critics of U.S. drug policy say most such smugglers fell into the job because of poverty and are hardly worth locking up for so long when legions of their poor compatriots stand ready to take their place.

“These are not masterminds like Pablo Escobar or Chapo Guzman,” said Kendra McSweeney, an Ohio State University geographer who has spent years researching U.S. drug policies.

Neither the Coast Guard nor Justice Department would comment on Dávila-Reyes’ appeal but experts say it’s too early to judge the fallout from the landmark ruling.

Currently Vos’ office in Puerto Rico is preparing 14 motions for dismissal in other boat cases on behalf of jailed defendants from Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. The ruling has also been cited in at least five proceedings outside the First Circuit.

“It’s definitely a chink in the armor,” said Roger Cabrera, a court-appointed attorney in Miami seeking who has filed one of the appeals. “But like most chinks, I’m sure the federal government is already looking for a workaround.”

For now, U.S. law enforcement continues to conduct regular search and seizures on the high seas with little indication of concern.

In court filings, attorneys for the U.S. government have argued in part that holding up interdictions to wait for an unequivocal denial of registry from a foreign nation before declaring a vessel stateless would be impractical.

“Anyone involved with bringing dangerous drugs into the United States will be held accountable, no matter their position in the drug-distribution network,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman.

___

Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/tips/

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Associated Press

Ugandan opposition figure Bobi Wine objects to oil pipeline

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — A planned pipeline to export oil from Uganda is likely to entrench the long rule of President Yoweri Museveni, opposition figure Bobi Wine said Tuesday, voicing his opposition to a project that’s increasingly controversial over environmental concerns. Wine, a singer and former lawmaker who ran for president in 2021, is the […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Bulgaria: Borissov offers coalition, doesn’t want PM’s post

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, whose center-right GERB party emerged as the winner of Bulgaria’s parliamentary election, invited his political opponents Tuesday to talks on forming a government. Results from Sunday’s election showed GERB with 25.4% of the vote, edging out the reformist We Continue the Change party by more than […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Motorcycle-riding gunmen kill Philippine radio commentator

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Motorcycle-riding gunmen killed a longtime radio commentator in metropolitan Manila in the latest attack on a member of the media in the Philippines, considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. Police said Percival Mabasa, 63, was driving his vehicle Monday night when two men on a motorcycle approached […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

German minister tells Poland no chance for WWII reparations

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Germany’s foreign minister told her Polish counterpart Tuesday there will be no more World War II reparations because Berlin considers the matter is closed. Annalena Baerbock directly addressed Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau at a news conference in Warsaw following their talks on subjects that included Poland’s request for reparations. “The […]
1 day ago
A model wears a creation for the Chanel ready-to-wear Spring/Summer 2023 fashion collection present...
Associated Press

Chanel goes understated in final day of Paris Fashion Week

PARIS (AP) — An understated collection awaited the VIP guests who attended Chanel’s show on the final day of Paris Fashion Week. Kristen Stewart and Diane Kruger were among those who arrived at the Grand Palais Ephemere for one of the day’s biggest events, while some eyes looked forward to Miu Miu and Louis Vuitton […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Russian court fines TikTok for not deleting LGBT content

A Russian court on Tuesday fined TikTok for failing to delete LGBT material, the country’s latest crackdown on Big Tech companies. The Tagansky District Court in Moscow issued the 3 million ruble ($50,000) penalty to the short-video sharing platform following a complaint by Russian regulators. TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd., didn’t immediately […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
Ruling threatens US power as world’s high-seas drug police