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Fight against Dominican smugglers lands in N.J.

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The relationship between a U.S. senator from New Jersey and a wealthy political benefactor has highlighted gaps in port security in the Dominican Republic, which has become the top transit point for drugs in the Caribbean. And the situation appears to be getting worse.

Authorities in the Dominican Republic seized 9 tons of cocaine last year, the third consecutive record, according to the country's national drug control agency. In January alone, they seized another 3 tons off the south coast.

“It will probably be a record this year as well,” said Pedro Janer, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean Division.

The DEA praises the efforts of the Dominican Republic in fighting drugs, and U.S. backing has included the use of a surveillance drone and support of ships and aircraft based in Puerto Rico. But U.S. officials have repeatedly complained about the need for more security in the ports, where there is only a single large-scale scanner, on loan from the U.S., to search the interior of cargo containers.

Among the critics: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has raised the issue in three congressional hearings.

“I often think about this in a very significant way in my own home state because we know that some of those container ships laden with cocaine, when they leave the Dominican Republic, where do they sail to? Well, they very often end up in the Port of Newark and Elizabeth, which is the mega-port of the East Coast in my home state of New Jersey,” he said in a December 2011 hearing.

His interest has drawn public scrutiny since federal agents recently searched the Florida offices of his largest campaign contributor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, who in August 2011 had purchased a company with a contract to provide increased security at Dominican ports. The 10-year contract, valued at $500 million, was signed in 2002 but suspended two years later by the Dominican government and is tied up in the courts.

Menendez's staff has acknowledged he talked to the State Department and other federal officials about the port deal, and said that's not unusual because he has regularly raised concerns if American firms are not treated fairly abroad.

“The fact that someone is a donor does not do away with the right or the opportunity to consider whether something is correct or incorrect, to ask questions, raise concerns,” Menendez said on Thursday.

Separately, the senator had acknowledged that he failed to pay for trips he took on the doctor's plane and reimbursed about $58,500 for the visits to the Dominican Republic.

Meanwhile, the flow of drugs through the Dominican Republic has been on the rise, part of a wider surge of smuggling through the Caribbean as traffickers apparently attempt to evade multinational efforts off Central America and along the U.S.-Mexico border, say officials.

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