José David Figueroa Agosto

The man who was once considered the most powerful drug kingpin in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico has been convicted and sentenced to decades in a US prison, raising questions as to who will step up to take control over the growing drug trade in this small but important trafficking corridor.

José David Figueroa Agosto, a Puerto Rican known by the alias "Junior Cápsula," was sentenced to 30 years in prison on drug trafficking charges, local media reported on August 8. The sentence was handed down by a US federal judge in May as part of a plea agreement, but relevant court documents had been sealed until recently.

A 2010 indictment charged Figueroa Agosto with shipping approximately 3 metric tons of Colombian cocaine between 2000 and 2001. His organization is thought to have controlled up to 90 percent of narcotics trafficking through the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico at the height of his power. This led the Puerto Rican -- who enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, using various false identities and even resorting to plastic surgery to evade capture -- to eventually be dubbed the "Pablo Escobar of the Caribbean."

According to the indictment, Figueroa Agosto would acquire Colombian cocaine and ship it either straight from Colombia or through neighboring Venezuela to Puerto Rico. A US Justice Department press release indicates that his group also dealt with heroin, and at times used private yachts to ship millions in cash earned from drug sales back to the Dominican Republic.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Dominican Republic

Earlier in his career in the drug business, Figueroa Agosto murdered an individual he believed had stolen cocaine, a crime for which he was sentenced to more than 200 years in prison in 1995. But four years later, the Puerto Rican national walked out of prison through the front door with a forged release permit, most likely with help from colluding guards.

Figueroa Agosto twice more secured his release in the Dominican Republic, supposedly by bribing officials, before his final arrest in Puerto Rico in 2010. Rumours swirled that he may even have bribed a presidential candidate. And in 2015, Figueroa Agosto's defense attorney was sentenced to nearly six years in prison on money laundering charges. The US Justice Department asserts the attorney bribed Puerto Rican officials with drug money, in the hope of obtaining the nullification of the original murder sentence.

InSight Crime Analysis

Beyond his colorful story, Figueroa Agosto is one of the rare examples of a homegrown Caribbean kingpin. As the region's importance as a drug transit point has grown, his demise raises questions about the future of the criminal landscape in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, two of the Caribbean's main drug trafficking hubs.

The volume of narcotics transiting through the region reportedly tripled between 2009 and 2014, while a series of multi-ton seizures in 2017 support official estimates that this upward trend has continued. Today, the Dominican Republic sees an estimated 120 metric tons of cocaine transiting through the country each year. Furthermore, the Caribbean's role in the US market also appears to have grown over the past few years. In 2012, only 5 percent of drugs reaching the United States reportedly passed through the Caribbean; by 2015 this figure reached 13 percent.

SEE ALSO: Caribbean News and Profile

No single major criminal figure has publicly emerged in the Dominican Republic since the days of Figueroa. But during recent field research to the country InSight Crime learned that local groups were assuming greater control of drug routes. This would represent an empowerment of homegrown criminal cells in a country that has traditionally come under the influence of Colombian and Mexican crime syndicates. It could also represent a potential impetus for conflict, if these local groups resort to violence in attempting to maintain or expand their operations.

Furthermore, analysts have suggested that corrupt government elements -- particularly the military and police -- have gradually stepped up their role in the drug trade from acting as facilitators to becoming traffickers in their own right. In 2015, top officials of the Dominican anti-narcotics police were accused of stealing over a ton of seized cocaine, and authorities suggested that up to 90 percent of organized crime related cases could involve collusion by security forces.

With global cocaine production estimated to be at historic levels, the flow of drugs, money and weapons through the Dominican Republic and its Caribbean neighbors looks poised to grow. The DEA's Caribbean Division has also confirmed to InSight Crime that laboratories producing the powerful opioid fentanyl have been discovered on the island, potentially representing a new phenomenon in this traditional transit hub.

Investigations

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