Dec. 17, 2002 The Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area with its 16 task forces received the 2002 HIDTA of the Year award at the program's annual conference recently in Washington, D.C.
"This is a great thing. For us to be recognized as the No. 1 HIDTA in the country is an exceptional accomplishment," U.S. Attorney for the Virgin Islands David Nissman said.
"It was a surprise," Catherine Mills, deputy director for the coalition of local and federal law-enforcement agencies, said.
The joint award went to the administrative and operational ends of the regional program, Mills said. The P.R.-V.I. HIDTA had previously been recognized for aspects of its program, but this was the first time it came home with the top award, she said. Earlier honors had been for having the best intelligence section, best intelligence analyst and the best initiative, she said.
The award was given by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which cited the regional HIDTA this time for two areas of accomplishment:
– As a well-organized and well-run coalition of federal and local police, prosecutors and investigators that provides an effective deterrent to drug trafficking throughout the Eastern Caribbean.
– As an effective vehicle for promoting cooperation among other HIDTA teams in various states and outside of the organization, working with police agencies in Central and South America.
John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a release that during the past year, the Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands executive board "organized and orchestrated operations and prioritized resources to ensure a coordinated, joint operation approach of drug interdiction and criminal investigations." It also monitored various operations to ensure accountability, the release stated.
"The HIDTA director and deputy director have been active in promoting the success of the program by overseeing daily management and ensuring that administrative and support activities were provide in an efficient manner," Walters said. And management staff made sure funding was used effectively, he said.
The regional HIDTA helped its counterparts in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as agencies in Caribbean countries, Walters said. It worked to reduce the amount of drugs shipped to the United States from El Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Columbia, Uruguay, Brazil, Nicaragua and Argentina.
And in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Agency's Caribbean Division Intelligence Group, the release stated, the area agency produced several publications: "Trends in Trafficking Report," "The Cocaine Pricing Report" and "The Heroin Situation Report." It also developed the semi-annual "Eastern Caribbean Top Echelon Traffickers Book."
Jose M. Alvarez, director of the Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands HIDTA, commended his staff for putting their lives on the line every day to address the region's drug and crime problems.
Mills said HIDTA brings together staff from various federal and local agencies to work on specific situations, called initiatives. "We share intelligence and are working on the same cases together," she said, and during an initiative, those staff members from various agencies all set up operations at the HIDTA office.
The P.R.-V.I. HIDTA was created in 1994 to help deter activity by drug traffickers through what was recognized as a major transshipment point. Four of the 16 task forces at work in the regional HIDTA are in the Virgin Islands; the others are in Puerto Rico.
Nissman, a local and later a federal prosecutor in the territory for 15 years before being named U.S. Attorney for the Virgin Islands this year, said the award is recognition of the talent and dedication of the local HIDTA team, although its numbers are small.
He said the Bush administration "wants to enforce measurable standards" and see the impact of drug availability reduced, drug sales off and drug use down as a result of what the agency has done.
A recent, high-profile example of the regional HIDTA's effectiveness was the arrest in early November of James "Jimmy the Juice" Springette. The St. Thomian became a major international drug trafficker and ended up on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Efforts by the P.R.-V.I. HIDTA helped bring about his capture by military police in Venezuela two years after he had broken out of a Colombian jail. Springette now is in custody on the U.S. mainland awaiting prosecution.
Nissman said winning HIDTA of the Year puts the regional agency "in an enviable position in the grant cycle" when it next comes time for the federal government to allocate law-enforcement resources. Salaries are low for the HIDTA staff, he said, but the feds are generous in supplying the materials the enforcement coalition needs to get the job done. This year, the Caribbean area received about $9 million in drug interdiction funds, he said.
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