SAN JUAN (Reuters) - A 1.8 ton cocaine shipment worth an estimated $50 million that was thought to be destined for the U.S. market was seized off the coast of Puerto Rico, federal authorities said on Wednesday, in one of the largest drug busts there in recent years.
The shipment was intercepted on Monday evening on a 30-foot boat that was 12.5 miles off the resort town of Dorado on Puerto Rico's north coast.
"We have seized more than three tons of cocaine over the last month," Angel Melendez, head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations office in San Juan, said on Wednesday.
The great majority of cocaine destined for the U.S. market is smuggled via Mexico, but U.S. officials have said that joint U.S.-Mexican counter-drug efforts have begun to push some of the traffic back into the Caribbean, an historically popular corridor during the heyday of Colombia's Medellin cartel in the 1980s and 1990s.
About 14 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine shipments, roughly 42 tons, was trafficked through the Caribbean in the first six months of 2013, and Puerto Rico and the neighboring Dominican Republic have emerged as hubs of the burgeoning trade, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
That was double the share of U.S.-bound cocaine that was shipped through the region during the first half of 2012, Vito Guarino, special agent in charge of the DEA's Caribbean division, said last October.
The U.S. has seen a 30 percent overall drop in the amount of cocaine smuggled into the United States over the same time period, partly due to increased drug interdiction efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border, Guarino said at that time.
Melendez told a news conference on Wednesday that a drug bust netted 1.1 tons of cocaine on the south coast of Puerto Rico in March. Drug traffickers use the Caribbean corridor as one of the preferred routes to send drugs to the United States, he said.
Last December a 33-foot long boat was seized off Puerto Rico containing 54 bales of cocaine weighing about 1,500 kilos.
Two suspected smugglers arrested on Monday were identified as Reny Alexander López Meneces and Andri Rivas Rojas Irving, both Venezuelan nationals. If convicted, they face from 10 years to life in prison and are being held at the federal detention center in San Juan on drug trafficking charges, authorities said.
ICE spokesman Ivan L. Ortiz-Delgado said the go-fast boat is believed to have traveled directly from Venezuela to Puerto Rico. He said smugglers use either this direct approach, or "island hop" through small eastern Caribbean nations or attempt to smuggle into the United States through the Dominican Republic.
The bust was made by the Caribbean Corridor Strike Force (CCSF), an initiative of the U.S. Attorney's Office created to combat major drug trafficking organizations operating in the Caribbean.
Reporting by a Reuters correspondent in San Juan; Editing by David Adams