Hunting down the drug smugglers

Water spray flew, and our light 30-foot United States customs patrol boat leaped forward across waters reddened by a setting sun. Veteran customs agent Walt Herm, heading out on a patrol from Miami's Brickell Point through Government Cut, had spotted something suspicious.

A white, 42-foot fishing craft coming in from the open sea ahead of us had all its cabin curtains drawn. It was low in the water, flying the red and white flag of the Bahamas. One man was at the wheel, but only one other could be seen on deck. A genuine fishing craft could well have had more.

After nine years of experience in chasing drug traffickers in these waters, Walt immediately went into action. He opened the throttles and twin 235 -horsepower outboard engines bit into the waters of the bay. Into his radio microphone he asked for a computer check to be run on the boat's name.

At the bow, agents Dave Dean and Pat Olive, armed with revolvers, prepared to jump on board. Walt, closing fast, touched the siren button. Standing beside him , I recalled with some concern my pre-patrol briefing: ''If you're asked to hold a gun, hold it. If you're told to jump overboard, jump.''

One more operation under the umbrella of Vice-President George Bush's South Florida task force against drug smmugling, recently named the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System.

The task force in south Florida has coordinated Navy, Air Force, and Marines with CIA intelligence. Enhanced numbers of law enforcement agents, attorneys, judges, and jail cells have been marshaled against smugglers from Colombia, Peru , Bolivia, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and elsewhere in the Caribbean since early 1982 .

It is recognized by United Nations officials as one of the most successful efforts in the world today to intercept and seize at least some of the cocaine, heroin, morphine, marijuana, and man-made pharmaceutical traffic now causing global alarm and earning smugglers billions of dollars a year.

Earlier in a two-hour conversation in Washington, the vice-president's chief of staff, Adm. Dan Murphy, had cautiously claimed some successes in one of the busiest set of trafficking routes in the world.

Through Sept. 30, 1983, the admiral said, the task force had seized almost half of all the cocaine interdicted nationwide (11,871 pounds, worth $5 billion on the street), and 68 percent of all marijuana (2.8 million pounds, worth $1.5 billion), mostly from Colombia.

Yet the admiral's caution was justified.

The episode this reporter watched while standing beside Walt, and the day-to-day details of how the task force operates, illustrate the immense difficulties in trying to police the world drug trade.

Agencies within the task force - customs, for instance - say their individual budgets have not been increased. They say they need more men and better equipment.

Traffickers can make millions of dollars a month. Their latest twist in Miami is not to retrofit existing boats with secret compartments but to buy whole boatyards and have hard-to-find compartments built into new boats.

Around the world, policing itself can never be the only answer to fighting drug abuse.

Pakistani, Dutch, Canadian, British, and a number of other customs, police, and special agents say they catch less than 10 percent of the total amounts smuggled.

Reducing the demand for drugs in the first place by education and prevention is the most crucial overall step. Stopping supplies at the source is also necessary. Continuous policing is a deterrent

Yet continuous policing is also required.

''It's still a deterrent,'' says Superintendent Rod Stamler of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Needed now: improved sharing of intelligence, more money, more trained men, better equipment to match the smugglers both south of the US and along other major heroin and marijuana routes from the ''Golden Crescent''(Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran) and the ''Golden Triangle'' (Burma-Thailand-Laos) via India, the Mideast, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Sicily into Europe and the US.

Cocaine is also being run into Europe by the Naples Mafia (the Camorra) from Bolivia and Peru.

Back on the Miami customs launch, the siren cut through the air as the customs boat approached the suspicious vessel. The captain of the fishing craft looked around impassively, and slowed down. Dave and Pat jumped on board.

Using his own handset, Pat Olive radioed to shore the names and details of the two men. Back came word: A warrant was out for the crewman's arrest on a charge of possessing cocaine. He was a Bahamian, living illegally in Miami, whose record also showed charges for theft and rape.

Pat Olive ordered the helmsman to head for the customs pier and a thorough search. No drugs were found. Agents said they suspected a large shipment would be on a sister vessel coming from the Bahamas in a few days.

The next day, this reporter braced himself in the copilot's seat of a small twin-engine Aero Commander plane. Pilot Bill Kline dived from 1,000 feet down to 50 feet to pick out the names on the sterns of dozens of shrimp boats spreading their nets like butterfly wings on the opalescent blue of the Gulf of Mexico below.

The patrol was looking for one particular 62-foot shrimper coming in from the Yucatan Peninsula with a load of illegal marijuana. It was almost like searching for a needle in a haystack. The boat was not found. The air above the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico is thick with smugglers' aircraft, particularly after dark. Agents say grimly that the skies above Jamaica - a transit point for cocaine and the source of large amounts of marijuana destined for the US - are some of the most dangerous in the world at night because of the number of unlit planes flying in without filing flight plans.

Smugglers coming in from Colombia are trying to beat the task force cordon by using larger planes (DC-3s and DC-4s) and flying farther east and north.

All the US Customs Service pilots are armed. All have tales to tell of chasing smugglers down to the ground, sometimes helped by radar on E-2C mini-AWACS Navy planes, sometimes in one of the new Cessna Citation jets equipped with the same kind of forward-facing, look-down, infrared radar used on the F-16 fighter jet. Sometimes they use fast Black Hawk attack helicopters. More resources needed

On another customs patrol, a King Air propeller plane circled over Freeport and the main island of the Bahamas. At one end of the island we spotted several planes discarded by traffickers after landing on a highway and offloading cocaine from Colombia into trucks that in turn delivered it to fast speedboats for the quick dash to southern Florida.

Pilots and dispatchers of such air patrols say they need better support, more pilots, and improved equipment.

Elsewhere, law enforcement agents also need more resources.

* In Pakistan, the Narcotics Control Board in Islamabad admitted to having far too few agents. A torrent of refined heroin, as well as opium partially refined into morphine, is flowing out to the US and Europe on commercial flights and in ships.

''It's an epidemic, really worrying,'' a senior London customs officer told me. ''Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis live in the U.K. We are no longer a transit point for Pakistani heroin. We are a major market.''

British heroin seizures were up 88 percent this year, and 102 percent the year before.

Customs at Heathrow Airport are finding heroin in hollowed-out cricket bats from Pakistan, in the padding on the fingers of field hockey gloves, stuffed inside footballs, in boxes of surgical scissors from the Pakistan industrial center of Sialkot, and compressed into strips and covered with wood-veneer contact paper. One shipment of heroin was contained inside a gymnasium vaulting horse.

Individual air and sea smugglers - called ''ant carriers'' by the customs - pour through Heathrow. As many as 10 carriers ride on some flights, changing planes in Europe to avoid the impression of coming straight from Karachi, often with a ''minder'' or supervisor to watch them stroll through customs.

Many carriers swallow dozens of tiny plastic bags filled with heroin or cocaine, to be recovered once in Europe. If a bag breaks inside the body, a carrier quickly dies.

So rife is smuggling by crew members on Pakistani ships that the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation has been ironically dubbed the Pakistan Narcotics Smuggling Corporation by some Western drug enforcement officials. Many crew members are by tradition from the Swat tribal area in the northwest of the country. It is said they cannot find a berth until they promise to smuggle heroin.

One brighter spot: More Karachi customs agents are being trained in the U.K. and the US. With rising addiction rates in Pakistan itself, their vigilance is rising.

* In Holland, antidrug superintendent John Oosterbroek says that police are seizing only between 2 and 5 percent of all heroin coming into the Netherlands. It is simply not enough to make the traffickers suffer, he said.

Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and the Port of Rotterdam remain the major distribution points for heroin and Moroccan marijuana in Europe.

Back at the Brickell Point customs dock in Miami, officers of the Dade County marine patrol told this reporter how many patrol boats belonging to US customs, Dade County, and the State of Florida are usually on duty.

Since smugglers read newspapers, too, the precise numbers will not appear here. Suffice it to say, the details are hardly reassuring.

'' Sure, everyone wants more resources,'' says the task force coordinator, Coast Guard Rear Adm. D. C. ''Deese'' Thompson, in an interview the next day.

''It's refreshing that all - customs, FBI, Coast Guard - want more. . . .

''But it's up to each individual agency to press for more budget money. The task force only coordinates.''

The admiral felt that one major success was improved intelligence from the federal government, and the cooperation of the military: Coast Guard crews on Navy ships, for example.

In the Executive Office Building beside the White House in Washington, a tanned trim Admiral Murphy said: ''The President started the task force because shoot-outs and killings in Miami were so bad in 1981. Cubans from the Mariel boatlift, and Colombians were - and are - violent in the extreme.

''Right away, we put in four more judges, opened five new courtrooms, brought in a new US attorney from Detroit, and assigned hundreds more agents to the streets.

''Forty more men went from the FBI, 150 extra men from the customs, 40 from the alcohol, firearms, and tobacco bureau, 20 more from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and more. Coast Guard patrols went on station in the Yucatan channel between Mexico and Cuba, and between Cuba and Haiti to the east.

''We amended the law so that the military could help. We 'digitalized' the Fat Albert radar tethered to a 10,000-foot high wire at Key West and had scanners watch the Caribbean as well as Cuba.

''We had the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] force all planes coming in to file flight plans - previously if you flew low enough and slow enough you didn't have to - and we choked traffic into a narrower area by closing a number of entry airports.''

Drugs are still getting through, as the admiral readily concedes. So much cocaine gets in that there is a glut in the US and prices are falling. More people can afford it, and more people are abusing it.

All the admiral will claim is that crime has dropped 10 percent in Miami. Polls show that fewer people want to leave. Traffickers have to go to much more expense and trouble now.

''We're in this fight to stay,'' the admiral said. ''The task force will continue to operate.''

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