By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) - President Donald Trump's concern the United States could open its doors to "very bad drug dealers" by easing immigration rules for the storm-hit Bahamas is undercut by administration data showing the Caribbean plays a small role in the narcotics trade.
The era of the 1980s "Cocaine Cowboys," who used speedboats to ferry vast amounts of that drug into South Florida from the Caribbean, has long since passed in large part because of the cooperation between the United States and nations including the Bahamas.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most recent assessment of drug trafficking mentions the Bahamas only once in its more than 150 pages, and indeed raises concerns about more potent marijuana flowing from the continental United States to the Caribbean.
"There are an extremely small number of people in the Bahamas involved in the level of criminality Trump was talking about, particularly drug trafficking," said Charles Katz, an Arizona State University criminology professor who has worked extensively in the Caribbean, including advising nations on how to fight crime.
Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Bahamas with 200-mile-per-hour (320-km-per-hour) winds last week, killing at least 50 people and causing immense destruction among the Abacos islands.
Several Bahamians who lost their jobs or homes to the storm said they were considering moving to the United States temporarily to find work. A bipartisan group of lawmakers including U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, members of Trump's Republican Party, called on the White House to temporarily relax visa requirements.
Trump, who has made restricting illegal and legal immigration a top policy priority, showed little enthusiasm for that idea when asked about it on Monday by reporters.
"Bahamas has some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren't supposed to be there," Trump told reporters. "I don't want to allow people that weren't supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers."
Those concerns belied the fact that the U.S. State Department's annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, filed to Congress in March, widely praised the Bahamas for its fight against the drug trade. It said the Bahamas is not a significant drug-producing country but that it remains a significant transshipment point for illicit drugs bound for the United States.
"During 2018, there was a notable increase in communication, effectiveness, and cooperation between Bahamian law enforcement agencies and the United States," the report read. "Demand for cocaine within the country remains low."
'CREATING A BOGEYMAN'
The DEA's 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment mentioned the Bahamas just once, in an anecdote about a drug-carrying ship that was intercepted. That report says that most cocaine, heroin and marijuana entering the United States comes through Mexico and Central America. Only 7 percent came through the Caribbean in 2017.
In fact, the DEA report stated, there has been an increased drug flow from the continental U.S. to the Caribbean region, as "marijuana users on the U.S. Virgin Islands desire more THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, in their marijuana and are obtaining it from areas in the U.S. where the use of medical marijuana is legal."
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institute expert on organised crime and global drug policies, said she thinks it highly unlikely that any cartel figures or members would want to come to the United States. She added that the small domestic market for cocaine in the Bahamas makes it unlikely there would be a significant number of street-level drug dealers who would seek to enter either.
"This is all very much Trump creating a bogeyman, which he applies to whatever country he does not want to accept nonwhite immigrants from," she said. "The priority needs to be on those hurting right now."
But Todd Bensman a Texas-based senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies - a hard-line group that pushes for restricting immigration - said that he read Trump's statements as less a concern that cartels will use the opportunity provided by Dorian to plant their foot soldiers on U.S. soil than valid worries about properly vetting those who would be allowed into the country.
Just as Dorian destroyed people's homes and took away their livelihoods, it has likely interfered with the operations of drug dealers working in the Bahamas, said Ivelaw Griffith, an expert on Caribbean security, drugs and crime with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Drug dealers are unlikely to want to face the scrutiny that involves navigating an increased number of search and rescue authorities in the area, Griffith said, adding, they "will provide the kind of exposure to law enforcement that is not conducive to trafficking."
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)