Miami: a magnet for adventure and profits. Cubans, cocaine, and corruption create image

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Twenty-five years ago there was ``Flipper,'' wholesome adventure set in a barefoot coastal idyll of small boats, snorkeling, and a friendly dolphin. At the other end of town, Jackie Gleason broadcast from a big Miami Beach hotel and said, ``How sweet it is!''

Now there's ``Miami Vice,'' steaming with glamor and contraband, palms and machine-guns, Cigarette boats and Italian suits.

To an extent, it's all true today. Dolphins still cavort through Biscayne Bay channels past downtown. Miami Beach is staging a comeback, the Art Deco hotels under restoration. Miami is a magnet for many of the hemisphere's more determined adventurers, schemers, and profiteers.

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The dangerous edge to Miami's image has roots in the enormously lucrative drug trade, and in two events of 1980. That year, a jury ruled two policemen innocent of killing a black insurance salesman they had stopped. And President Carter told Cubans seeking refuge from Castro that the US would welcome them with open arms.

Young blacks in the Liberty City section of the city responded to the police case verdict with violent rioting. And the 125,000 Cubans who hit Florida shores included many inmates of prisons and mental hospitals. The hard-core criminals among them helped send Miami's murder rate soaring.

Cocaine cowboys no longer unleash machine-gun fire in the streets, as happened in the early 1980s, but Miami remains a major transhipment point for cocaine and marijuana - at least 70 percent of the nation's cocaine enters here, US officials estimate. Economist Jan Luytjes pegs the drug trade crudely at 5 to 6 percent of the local economy.

With some smugglers in freeway-speed ocean racers or old airplanes, drugs come in, guns and other arms go out. ``There are no dead-head runs,'' says Bruce Snyder of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Miami is an arms trading center for guns to smuggle north, into states with stricter gun laws, and south to other countries. Sometimes the drug trade, the arms trade, and the international politics of Miami appear to blend at the margins - as when pilots jailed for drug smuggling recently claimed to have carried arms to Central America and drugs back with CIA approval to support the Nicaraguan rebels.

A prosperous Cuban businessman active in anticommunist causes takes a Sunday afternoon speedboat outing with family and friends. It is not unusual that he carries a loaded pistol under his seat.

Yet Miami is not as dangerous as its seems. Although for several years it has ranked first in the nation for homicides per capita, those figures become inflated for a city with a high proportion of visitors who do not count as population. Also, as Miami civic leaders point out, much serious crime takes place within the drug world. ``But if you're not in it or around it, then you're reasonably safe,'' says Geoffrey Alpert, criminal justice sociologist at the University of Miami.

The Cubans arriving from Mariel in 1980 have largely integrated into Cuban Miami. Only 12 to 15 percent of them were active criminals, says Dr. Alpert, and about 6 to 8 percent were extremely hardened. ``They didn't care,'' he says. ``They would do anything.'' But by now, most of the worst offenders have killed each other, are in prison, or are awaiting deportation.

Little economic progress has been made in Miami's black communities since the Liberty City rioting. Black community relations with police, at least in spots, are reportedly at a post-1980 low.

A microcosm of Miami's biggest problems is in the police department, fraught with charges of cops corrupted by the drug trade and with ethnic strife.

An unusually young department, officers can find themselves making a traffic stop and offered a month's or possibly a year's salary simply not to look in the trunk. Once accepted, corruption is a slippery slope. More than a dozen Miami police have been charged with roles in drug traffic, three involving murder. The murder case is under appeal after one juror voted not to convict.

One reason the department is so young is that an affirmative action policy of promoting blacks and Latins ahead of their seniority has sent bitter Anglo officers north to other departments. Miami's department is a battle zone of factionalism, much of it along ethnic lines.

In Miami businesses and neighborhoods, even the wealthiest ones, the prosperity of many Latins has meant widespread integration with non-Latin whites - even if the latter often complain of a foreign culture and language. ``The real problem is the black,'' says economist Luytjes. The largest employers in construction, manufacturing, services, and retail businesses over the next 15 years will be Latins, he notes. ``They're not hiring blacks.''

Mohamed Hamaludin, the Ghanaian managing editor of the Miami Times, says that blacks feel a different kind of prejudice from Latins than from Anglos. While he senses a deeper-seated sense of social superiority in Anglos, Latins are a tighter, more closed community, inclined to hire only relatives and friends, he says.

Latins also lack the sense of responsibility for black problems rooted in US history, he adds. ``What will motivate Latins to take responsibility for the whole community if they are no minority and don't need to form coalitions with blacks?''

Black Miami, like Latin Miami, is a rich amalgam of national origins and cultures. They range from relatively well educated and skilled Jamaicans to eager Haitians who recently arrived from the poorest country in the hemisphere. Both groups, in different ways, have displaced American-born blacks.

Liberty City itself consists mostly of stable, working-class black homeowners. But pockets of deprivation remain. In Coconut Grove, some of the most chic and expensive real estate in Florida sit blocks from public housing projects surrounded by idle young men. Overall, says Marvin Dunn, an FIU psychologist who cowrote a book on the neighborhood, ``things are certainly no better and possibly quite worse since the riot.''

Various groups are working hard to promote enterprises in the area, with some small successes. ``At best, I think it's a long-range thing,'' says Athalie Range, a businesswoman and community leader. ``A lot of them are going to bite the dust.''

Other stories ran May 5 and 6

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