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Caribbean joins drug fight

In what American officials describe as a significant advance in the effort to combat drug trafficking in the Caribbean, the United States has negotiated "hot pursuit" agreements under which nine nations have opened their territorial waters to Coast Guard vessels.

The countries are Antigua, Belize, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The accords permit the U.S. Coast Guard to follow suspect vessels into the other country's waters and to board and detain any suspicious vessels in those waters. It also allows the United States and the other country to assign law enforcement or military personnel to each other's vessels.

The agreements are "particularly important in the eastern Caribbean, where we could not follow smugglers in past the 12-mile limit," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Joseph Ahern. "As a practical matter, it meant that unless we could contact somebody in the local government, the smugglers would get away."

In an agreement signed in March during a visit by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Trinidad and Tobago went a step further. That country also agreed to allow American planes to fly over its territory and to order suspicious aircraft in Trinidadian airspace to land there.

In addition, discussions are under way with a half-dozen other countries to let the United States enter their waters to intercept shipments of cocaine and marijuana bound for American territory.

Issues of sovereignty and pride are slowing the process, officials throughout the region acknowledge, but elected leaders are also facing growing pressure to confront the drug threat that has fueled a crime wave across the Caribbean.

Washington's effort to increase its authority to intercept drug shipments outside U.S. territory has followed recent indications of tension between Colombian and Mexican cocaine-trafficking cartels. Partly as a result of that rift, Caribbean routes are apparently becoming more attractive to Colombian smugglers as alternatives to overland routes through Mexico.

"It's clear to all of us that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are under external attack," Barry McCaffrey, the White House's drug policy director, said in a speech in San Juan last week. He estimated that at least 20 percent of the cocaine being smuggled into the U.S. mainland is shipped or flown through American territories in the Caribbean.