Saturday, September 14, 2013

Drug Smugglers Use High-Speed Boats to Run Cocaine, Marijuana Into Florida

From the Toledo Blade - Jul 12 1986

Special to The Blade

MIAMI - The shoreline is ablaze with hotels but three miles out in the choppy sea a Metro Dade police launch bobs darkly in the waves. The 600-horsepower engines are turned off so the crew can listen for the scram and slap of the drug boats.

Suddenly an 800-horsepower "Midnight Express" storms into view, heading for the shore. "He refused to stop - we were going 50 miles per hour side by side - pretty fast for outside" on the open sea, said Sgt. John Sander, of the Metro-Dade police.

"Finally at gunpoint he stopped - there was almost a ton of marijuana under the decks." The rough sea had kept the more powerful smuggler boat from winning the race that day. It's not always true.

"I've been out here when a boat with five outboard engines made twin circles around me, gave me the finger and went back to the Bahamas with his load," said Gregory Rogers, a US Customs patrol officer.

"That's what gets me - when I'm going flat out and you can see you're not going to catch the guy into Haulover Cut," one of the few entrances from the Atlantic into the bays where drugs are delivered to waiting vans.

Sergeant Sand and Officer Rogers are on the front line of the USA's war against drugs. South Florida is just an hour by speedboat from the Bahamas, or even closer to an air drop in international waters.

This is the main importing centre for the estimated $90 billion to $110 billion-a-year cocaine trade, according to Denis Fagan, of customs.

The waters off Miami have become a battle zone in a war that drug smugglers are clearly winning: About 150 tons of cocaine are expected to enter the United States in 1986, up from 85 tons in 1984, according to a February report by the U.S. House Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.

Gregory Jansen, in charge of US Customs in Fort Lauderdale, said 80-90 per cent of the cocaine used to come in by plane, but now half the cocaine and 90 per cent of the marijuana comes in by boat.

Customs Agents are not sure if better offshore radar or bigger loads led smugglers to revert to the water route. But, from the mangrove thickets of the Keys to the posh canals of the Gold Coast, drug runners attack the coastline with alarming success.

"Every night at 9 p.m., if you're out at Bimini you can see the boats take off for Miami - it's like a chariot race - six powerful boats at full throttle and only one or two have the drugs," said a sailboat captain at the Miami Boat Show last month. "The others are decoys. Please don't use my name. We've all been offered $200,000 for a night's work driving those boats."

Drug smugglers have vast amounts of cash at stake - a 2,000-pound shipment of cocaine is worth $40 million wholesale. They can spend $200,000 for the top of the line - an 1150 horsepower Fountain powerboat with $20,000 in radar and night vision binoculars - and beat the boat to death on just one run. If it succeeds, they can buy 10 more boats and still show vast profits.

Wellcraft Scarab

The police and customs men who fight the smugglers know they're outgunned. But they keep on trying to staunch the flow of drugs.

Shoving the throttle forward on his 32-foot Wellcraft Scarab, the twin 235 horsepower engines lifted the bow and Gregory Rogers raced through the Cut on a recent patrol.

In jeans and a sweatshirt, with his machine gun and blue light hidden, he cruised past marinas where drug boats had been seized.

"Once I chased a guy in a 900-horsepower boat through the Cut and he jumped off," he recalled. "He left the boat going full throttle up the inland waterway. We had to pull alongside and board it."

As Officer Rogers cruised down the 135th street canal he pointed out where a drug boat had jumped a sea wall at high speed, landing 30 feet up on someone's lawn with 900 pounds of cocaine - worth $16.2 million wholesale in Miami.

Just ahead, up on the cement dock of a marina, he pointed out the three famous aqua and blue Wellcraft Scarabs used in the "Miami Vice" television show. "In reality you wouldn't want to have a boat painted like that - how long do you think it'd be before they recognise that?"

Mr. Rogers' boat has no name or customs identification. But when he spots a suspicious boat, he mounts a U.S. Customs sign and a blinking blue light, dons his customs jacket, and whips out a pistol and a machine gun in about 10 seconds.

"You want a low-key boat," he said. But, he admitted "the 'Miami Vice' boats are pretty good. Metro [Dade County] boats are not so good. And you should see the crap the real Miami Vice has."

At a recent Miami boat show, sister boats to the Miami Vice Scarabs were being sold at $115,000 apiece by salesman Patrick Lee. "We do a lot of cash deals," he admitted. "I gets lots of small bills - 10s and 20s that smell funny. It's not my job to question where the money comes from or what they want to do with the boats."

To get around the federal requirement that all cash transactions over $10,000 be reported, buyers pay in $9,900 instalments, according to Mr. Lee. "Come on - this is Miami," he said.

Elsewhere at the show customers checked out the electronics that have turned smuggling into a high-tech adventure in the 1980s.
Drug smuggling routes in 1978

Back in the 1800s the Federal Government sent the navy to Key West to control the "Wreckers" - islanders who moved warning lights to lure ships into reefs for the salvage. Later Ernest Hemingway would write of the captains who smuggled rum and illegal immigrants from Cuba into the United States.

But these days anyone with $8,000 goes to Mitch Shulman at N & G Electronics and buys infra-red projectors, starlight telescopes for night vision, fuzz busters to detect police radar, and 72-mile maine radar to tell if they are being chased.

"There's no doubt that the customers of these sport boats and electronics are often using them for drugs," he said. "It's an old story: profits. Whatever the coast guard does, someone does better."

Customs, on Feb. 11, unveiled a new high-tech radar command centre in Miami - a sort of war room for the drug fight.

Using radar images from U.S. Air Force radar balloons tethered high above the smuggling corridors, and 40 high-speed boats being delivered this month, customs hopes to outfox the smugglers.

Already a suspicious blip that had a rendezvous with another blip and then blitzed toward the coast was stopped with cocaine.

Officer Rogers insists that plain police work and common sense is at least as important as the high technology/performance boats and electronics.

Whipping past a boat gassing up near Government Cut in the shadow of the elephantine, white cruise ships, he says "there's a boat that can go international - let's see what it looks like."

When he sees fishing lines and rough clothing as well as a valid number on the bow, he is satisfied.

"We get them coming in all the time with five huge engines off the back, no fishing gear, and the pilot is a Mariel [Cuba] refugee who doesn't speak English but is wearing Gucci shoes and gold chains," Mr. Rogers says. "The boats smell of [bleach] because they've just unloaded down at the Keys and have cleaned them out."

Florida laws allow lawyers who defend drug suspects to see the files of arresting officers, complained Officer Sander. This led the smugglers to understand that the smell of drugs was justification for a thorough search. So they began using smelly cleaning fluids to cover the smell.

In addition, many smugglers are using hidden compartments, so customs must chop the boats open with axes to search. Officer Rogers has completed a special course on the detection of those compartments and teaches other officials what to look for.

It's still a cat-and-mouse game out on the sea.

Smugglers use smaller spotter boats to lie at the entrance to the harbours and radio when the coast is clear.

Officer Rogers says he can radio for a helicopter if he can't catch a smuggler, but ultimately it takes another boat to make the arrest.

"It's always better to let the smuggler go than sacrifice a man's life" trying to keep up in rough seas at high speed, he said.

Ben Barber is a journalist in Miami.

Midnight Express Interceptor

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