The struggle to defuse a time bomb

Michael Posner April 5 1982

The struggle to defuse a time bomb

Michael Posner April 5 1982

The struggle to defuse a time bomb



Michael Posner

Out on Biscayne Bay, pleasure boats are drifting in the gentle spring breeze. The colors seem chosen from some fantasy of escapebrilliant white sails on an emerald sea, under a smogless blue canopy of sky. From the vantage point of Charles Intriago’s law offices, Miami is the sunblessed image indelibly etched on the mind or memory of every winter-weary Canadian. But high above Biscayne Boulevard and on the beach, in Little Havana and Little Haiti, in the condominial ghettos of the aristocracy and amid the grinding poverty of black Liberty City—indeed, in virtually every community in Dade County—the dream is beginning to fade.

The once-firm verities of life in South Florida have been rudely shaken, corroded by the acids of violent crime and drugs, race and refugees. As palpable as the surfside breeze, the mood in Miami has become one of fear and confusion, of anger and anxiety. Among even the most privileged members of this society, there is a gnawing sense that the world as it was once known and enjoyed has somehow been set adrift from its moorings. Golden Beach, one affluent

ocean community, has taken to closing six access roads and guarding a seventh. Another, fabled Miami Beach, has mounted cameras on downtown streets to monitor citizen activities. “I have a great love for this country,” says Charles Intriago, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice. “And God damn it, I hate to see it slide like this.” A few weeks earlier, Intriago’s own mother, a 65-year-old merchant, was robbed and beaten in broad daylight in her store. The incident is an .almost routine occurrence, but for Intriago it seems to have tapped some long-suppressed instinct of outrage. “It’s a God damn shame that people here are being marauded by these animals on the street. They’re locked up in their homes, live in fortresses, handgun sales are skyrocketing. It’s absolutely dangerous.”

In fact, dangerous is something of an understatement. Crime in South Florida is, by any measure, rampant. In the past decade, the rate of violent crime in Miami alone has jumped more than 400 per cent. In 1981, Dade County recorded 1.6 homicides every day. Robbery and burglary are epidemic. Sales of security equipment—alarms, locks, floodlights, guard dogs, surveillance systems, the

paraphernalia of fear—are rising exponentially. Owners of one-storey buildings frequently install barbed wire on their roofs to keep thieves out. The wife of a Broward County judge leaves all her jewelry at home when she shops and always wears the same pair of deeppocketed pants for keys and wallet. A former city commissioner, thrice-burglarized insurance executive Arthur Patten, finally conceded defeat and moved to North Carolina. “I’ve been through two wars,” Patten said at his valedictory, “and no combat zone is as dangerous as Dade County. If you stay there, you arm yourself to the teeth, put bars in your windows, keep your fingers crossed and pray you don’t get blown away.”

At least half the crime, area police officials believe, is attributable to Marielitos, the 125,000 Cubans who fled Castro’s regime in 1980 and were given sanctuary in America. An indefinite number—some estimate between 5,000 and 10,000—were certified murderers, robbers and mental defectives. Turned loose on Miami, they have demonstrated a wanton disregard for the conventional ethics of their craft. “The Marielito refugee is an amoral person,” Lieut. Robert Murphy, chief of Miami’s homicide bureau, says matter-of-factly. “He has no scruples. If you say to him, ‘Here’s $25. Kill that person,’ he’ll kill him. He’ll do it for a reputation. He’ll search you, rob you, kill you. Boom. $25. They’re a cruel, mean little group of criminals.” In Miami, Murphy’s opinion is exceptional only for its bluntness.

The sudden influx of indigent Latin Americans—Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, many of whom are illegal aliens—has placed an intolerable burden on the county’s hospitals, schools, welfare rolls and other social-service agencies. Court dockets are absurdly extended. One state attorney claims that if he locked his door tomorrow, it would still take him more than nine years to clear the case backlog. The jails are full. Some county judges have been effectively warned to exercise caution in sentencing; there simply isn’t enough room for many new prisoners.

As a result, convicted felons are receiving light sentences or quick parole, undermining the already shaky morale of Dade County police forces.

More than one-third of all crimes are never solved. Murderers are often South American hit men, soldiers in the state’s ongoing warfare in the narcotics trade.

Shuttle executioners, they fly in at dawn to avenge some prior affront and fly out again by dusk. “Murder in Miami, lunch in Bogota,” says Don Matthews, the embittered captain of the Dade County homicide squad. “You know how long it would take me to get a permit to go after one of those guys? Three days.” And when suspects are seized and indicted, witnesses all too frequently disappear. Explains Lieut. Murphy: “These swampy fields around the county—if the bodies that are laying out there could all jump up and yell at once, it would sound like the God damn Dolphins scored a touchdown.”

In one way or another, much of Miami’s crime wave is drug-related. At $10 billion a year, drugs now rival tourism as Florida’s leading industry. Fighting for control of the traffic, various Cuban and Colombian gangs occasionally carry their grievances into the

city’s streets and shopping malls, using MAC-10 and -11 machine-guns that fire 30 rounds in less than a second. With its thousands of private airstrips and secreted waterways, Florida is the favored port of entry for some 80 per cent of the nation’s annual ingestion of cocaine, marijuana and Quaaludes. Outgunned and understaffed, the combined resources of the U.S. Coast Guard, customs officials, border patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seem virtually impotent. “On a good day, we like to think we get it all,” says a sober Vernon Meyers, DEA’s re-

gional director. “On a bad day, we might not get any of it.” By most accounts, the authorities have more bad days than good. Says Intriago: “For every tonne of hashish they seize, and every kilo of coke, another nine get by.”

Not only South Americans are enticed by the lure of staggering profits coupled with the minimal risk of capture. Florida fishermen now find trawling for “square grouper”—bales of mar-

ijuana—far more lucrative than their original quarry. Others, Americans and Canadians alike, are busy slapping $50,000 second mortgages on their homes and investing in a few kilos of cocaine. “You’re talking about maybe a $400,000 profit at street level,” says Matthews. Indeed, he adds, some major dealers “make more in one deal—in one deal—than the annual budget of this department. That’s $90 million.”

Awash in a sea of narco-dollars, Miamians have learned not to ask questions about the origin of a client’s money. Bank tellers regularly accept vast deposits from gold-bedecked Latins pulling bundles of cash from brown paper bags. Sellers of Rolls-Royces, yachts and luxury condominiums are accustomed to handing over the keys in exchange for a suitcase of crisp paper currency. Arrested dealers will quickly post $1 million in bail, then catch a plane for Colombia; $1 million is a small fraction of the next deal’s potential harvest. Or, adds Lieut. Murphy, limning a ¿more disturbing scenario, “a cop will stop a car Scarrying, say, $250,000 in cash and a few kilos of coke. The dealer tells the cop: ‘Take it. It’s yours. Just let me go!’ I’m not naïve enough to know it hasn’t happened.”

Beyond drugs and crime, South Florida has also been the prime landing site for boatloads of starving Haitians, in flight from the brute poverty and repression of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier’s island dictatorship. Picked up by coast guard or borijjf der patrol officers, about 575 Haitians are now being detained at the Krome North immigration processing facility, 50 km west of Miami, awaiting exclusionary or deportation hearings. Their faces wear masks of puzzlement: they cannot understand why they are not released and permitted to find jobs. But the only basis upon which U.S. law will grant them asylum is proof of political persecution, and few have been able to offer unequivocal evidence. The inmates at this former missile site grow increasingly restive. Late last year, they staged a five-day hunger strike and clashed with security guards. More than 100 Haitians escaped from the compound, running through the swampy everglades toward the mirage of liberty.

The confluence of these problems has inevitably sparked intense discussions about their source—and how to find solutions. Lawyer Intriago cites America’s woefully lax gun laws as a significant catalyst to crime. “Our gun law policies are insane. A handgun has no useful purpose, other than to kill people. In 1979, handguns were used in 10,000 homicides. In Japan, with half our population, they were used in 48 homicides.” What the U.S. needs, Intriago contends, is strict licensing and registration laws, a 21-day waiting period between purchase and possession, stringent sentences for second offenders, prohibition of pawnshop sales and mandatory reporting of thefts. “The crescendo of crime has already produced an exodus of some of Miami’s best and brightest citizens,” he laments. Yet he vows: “I’m not leaving.

I’m going to stay and fight these guys.”

Others equally committed to handgun control doubt that any local, or even state, initiative can succeed. “To be really effective,” says Howard Rasmussen, executive director of the Citizens’ Crime Commission of Greater Miami,

“it must be done at the federal level. It’s too easy to cross county or state lines otherwise. So you need federal legislation, and I’m not sure that’s politically feasible.” Homicide’s Capt.

Matthews questions the efficiency of even a national ordinance. “Everybody is armed with some kind of weapon. If you take guns away, they’ll use knives. If you take away knives, they’ll use a hammer. Hammer, saw. Saw, machete. Pretty soon we’ll be back to hands.”

The courts are another source of deep frustration. “I’ll tell you when we lost it,” says Miami police Sgt. Ernie Vivian. “We lost it when we started giving probation for the fourth, fifth, sixth time. A guy commits armed robbery, they put him on probation for violating his probation. It’s silly.”

Intriago, convinced that only draconian measures will work, insists that society owes a debt to its law-abiding citi-

zens to inflict retribution. “We ought to be warehousing these guys. Lock ’em up. The law provides for punishment if the law is broken. When you don’t inflict the punishment, it causes a breakdown in respect for the law and breeds the attitude ‘we can do it and get away with it.’ ”

When Miami police officer George Martinez was shot cold-bloodedly in the face last year, two Cubans were brought in for questioning. “We put them in a corner,” Murphy recalls, “and somebody went out for coffee and Danish and when he got back, of course

we offered some to these yo-yos. Well, they laughed at us. ‘Here,’ they said, ‘you shoot a policeman and they give you cakes and coffee. In Cuba, we’d be dead right now.’ ”

Predictably, the courts themselves challenge the notion that longer sentences are the sure answer to South Florida’s travails. “Most of these crimes,” says Broward County Court Judge Morton Abram, “do not merit 20year or 30-year sentences. Under law,

most merit five to 10 years .... There just aren’t enough jails to accommodate all the people society says it would like to put there.” Crime Commissioner Rasmussen agrees. “You can’t put people in there forever. Eventually, 98 per cent are going to end back on the street. If rehabilitation as it’s been practised does not work, then perhaps it’s time to try some other approaches.”

Concerned Miamians, afraid that the triple-headed gargoyle of crime, drugs and refugees is already scaring away tourists, are doing just that. In recent months, several public-interest groups have been formed, including the Miami Citizens Against Crime, Crimestoppers Anonymous, Crimewatch and the Florida Coalition to Halt Handgun Crime, a newly formed group of which Charles Intriago is president. Last month, the federal government finally sat up and acknowledged the region’s myriad burdens, naming a seven-man cabinet-level task force to, as a press spokesman put it, “get something organized, get _ something done.” In the g meantime, Dade County “ hotels are trying to raise an $18-million war chest to promote Miami’s virtues in ads and publicrelations campaigns. “We’ve got to create an image of a community fighting back,” says State Senator Joe Gersten. “What doesn’t work is scantily clad beauties on billboards in the z North.” Or as The Miami SHerald editorialized:

= “Reality, not image, is I South Florida’s problem.” One fresh diffigculty is a move to legalize casino gambling in 5the county. Its proponents say it will reverse the declining fortunes of tourism. Its detractors fear it will only invite more crime. A public referendum is likely.

There are, of course, two realities at work in Florida. For all its current ailments, Miami retains an aura of myth about it. Tourists and natives alike know that the sun shines faithfully, the surf laps lovingly at the shore, and orange juice has the sweetness of some divine nectar. But myth depends finally on its audience’s willingness to believe. When conviction ends, myth is dispelled. Miami’s task is not only to control crime, but to redeem its believers,