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

By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1987


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!''

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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.

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.