Frontlines

The Florida connection

William Lowther November 5 1979
Frontlines

The Florida connection

William Lowther November 5 1979

The Florida connection

William Lowther

A few days after Jimenez Panesso and his hefty bodyguard were machine-gunned to death—“They looked like Swiss cheese,” said the medical examiner—three Canadians were arrested at Miami International Airport. Police say they were drug couriers carrying cocaine, supplied by Panesso’s gang, meant for the Toronto market. In a way, the Canadians were victims of one of the most vicious and ruthless crime wars in the history of the United States. It’s believed they were “shopped”—or turned over to the police—by a rival gang; the same one that pumped 50 bullets into Panesso.

This is a war that matches the one in Northern Ireland when it comes to ferocity in violence and murder. And, as in Ireland, there is no end in sight. “As long as life is cheaper than cocaine, they’re not going to quit killing,” says Dade County (Miami) homicide Lieutenant Robert Willis. Five competing gangs, made up almost exclusively of Colombians and Cubans, are fighting it out for supremacy in the billion-dollar trade which, by some estimates, has surpassed tourism as the biggest industry in Florida. The drug smuggling got under way on a large scale about 15 years ago in southern Florida. For the first 10 years it was controlled by “the Cuban Mafia,” mostly refugees from Castro’s Cuba, many of them trained guerrilla fighters and Bay of Pigs veterans. They brought in steadily increasing amounts of cocaine and marijuana, principally from Colombia. But the Cubans became greedy; they gave their Colombian suppliers only a small share of the profitsi and often failed to pay for shipments Irritated by such treatment, the Colombians started to send over “enforcers” in the mid-1970s, and soon the bodies of mysteriously murdered Latins began to appear in South Florida.

At the same time the drug business began to boom as cocaine became chic and the market expanded, from New Brunswick to California. The Colombians moved into South Florida and began taking over from the Cubans— supplying and selling their own product. That interference was the spark— the drug wars were under way. Colombians fought Cubans, and more recently the major Colombian gangs have started to battle with each other.

Says Willis: “The current rash of killings was brought on because two people last Easter killed a Colombian woman guarding a ‘safe’ house. They stole some cocaine at the same time. Since then it’s gotten progressively worse. You can’t really explain it. ‘My group is angry at your group.’ They’re not fighting for anything. It’s the Hatfields and the McCoys.”

So far this year more than 60 people—nearly all of them Colombians— have been murdered in the Miami area as part of the war. “What we have here is a bloody power struggle among different groups in which no quarter is given,” says Chief Charles Black of the Dade County public safety department, whose agents investigate many of the killings. “These people stop at nothing. They have already shot at law enforcement agents. They’ll throw hand grenades next and nobody’s going to be safe here anymore.” William Richey of the Dade County state attorney’s office goes further, stating that the Colombians have turned South Florida into a “free zone.”

The five major gangs have about 100 members each and all of them have constructed a maze of identities with perfectly forged passports crafted in Colombia. Every month they bring in tons of marijuana, wholesale lots of pure cocaine and millions of tablets of methaqualone “downers,” commonly known by the brand name Quaalude.

There is an eager market for this contested cargo—throughout the U.S. and Canada, the “pot” and “coke” from Colombia have gained a reputation among users as being the best available. Says a member of the RCMP’s drug squad in Ottawa: “There is no doubt that the drugs from Colombia are in high demand in Canada. We believe that couriers pick them up in Florida and bring them back in suitcases and in their pockets. Mostly they fly directly into Toronto or Montreal. Some of them fly to Buffalo and then drive in over the border. It’s an expanding business.”

At the U.S. government’s Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington an official confirms: “We know that much of the Canadian market for marijuana and cocaine is supplied from Florida. That’s where a lot of your dollars are going, all right. And in so far as Canadians are buying this stuff, they’re supporting the drug wars.”

Southern Florida is a nearly perfect base for smuggling—8,246 miles of shoreline offering the isolation of 10,000 islands and the protective bustle of busy piers. The state is also rich in airfields, and at no point is it more than 70 miles from either the Atlantic or the gulf. The most popular way to bring large quantities of narcotics into the U.S. is by freighter. The vessels carry a full load of drugs, often leaving from the Colombian port of Barranquilla. They anchor off the Florida coast and small, fast boats ferry the drugs to land.

Increasingly, though, the smugglers are using large cargo planes—often DC48—to make fast, long-haul drug flights—and the pilots and crew are part of the war. Aboard a plane that customs agents forced to land earlier this year was found not only bales of marijuana, but a small arsenal of weapons—.22-calibre pistols with silencers and .38-calibre pistols with rubbertipped bullets dipped in cyanide.

But even poison bullets cannot erase the lure of profits so lucrative that outsiders can only guess at them. For example, state authorities broke up one smuggling ring that they could prove in court was making $500 million a year from marijuana. Two gang leaders caught by federal authorities were shown to have made $12 million in a 16month period by importing 500 tons of marijuana.

The money surfaces, too, when the police get court permission to probe into suspected dealers’ bank accounts. They found that Miami businessman José Medardo Alvero-Cruz, a Cuban-born Bay of Pigs veteran, deposited $1 million one day, $315,000 three months later, $950,000 a few hours after that and $800,000 two weeks later. One Colombia-born Miami grocer, charged with cocaine distribution, posted $100,000 bail and then skipped. Another Miami drug baron, Felix B. (Felix the Cat) Vicknair, put up $1 million in cash as a down payment on a shopping centre, a yacht and three houses.

But many smugglers are avoiding the trap of using cash in such huge sums. The illicit drug industry has become a sophisticated international commodity business, and brokers commonly use telephones and Telex to transfer millions of dollars electronically into Swiss and Bahamian bank accounts. It used to be that criminals robbed banks. In South Florida they try to buy them. At least five attempts to take over banks have been stopped by regulatory authorities when the money involved was found to have come from drug smugglers.

“What is happening here,” said one official of the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, “can be compared to a triangular equation of drugs, money and violence, in which each of the three equals the combination of the other two.” AÍ Capone would be proud. $