Cocaine: Middle Class High

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What persuaded her to seek drug treatment was an experience that could have killed her and her brother. Like many freebasers, they used sedatives to come down off a high. "You're wired up like a mad dog," says Mary, "and your body's been running at 150 miles an hour for days." One night, after freebasing in the rear of her van, they took some Quaaludes and passed out, leaving an unlit propane torch with its nozzle open — creating a risk that a stray spark could ignite the propane and blow up the van.

At least 90% of all the coca leaf in the world comes from moist, infertile mountain land in Peru and Bolivia, whose governments cherish the crop as one of their principal exports. Raw coca leaves are soaked in various chemicals and oil. The result is a muddy brown paste, which is purified into so-called coca base, a dirty white, almost odorless substance, which is usually shipped to laboratories in Colombia for refining.

The final product is not as much in demand in Europe as in the U.S. Explains an Italian drug expert: "On such things Europe is about five years behind." Nonetheless, in cosmopolitan cities from Munich to Milan, prostitutes have easy access to cocaine for their customers, and fashionable restaurants and nightclubs have a ready supply for the would-be snorter.

From the Andes to the American nose, the trade is almost entirely controlled by Colombians, who process the drug and smuggle it into the U.S., largely by boat and plane. Enterprising individuals have hidden cocaine in everything from hollowed-out candy bars and native "carvings" to wigs, souvenirs and even plastic sacks in their stomachs, which occasionally burst, causing death.

In Bogotá, the Colombian capital, a kilo of 90% pure cocaine costs $4,000; in New York City, it is worth $60,000. It is then cut or "stepped on" with adulterants like lactose (a nutrient), to add weight and volume, amphetamines to give a cheaper high and procaine to simulate coke's numbing effect. Since the powder that reaches the street often contains no more than 12% pure cocaine, the original kilo, or "key," has now been fattened to some eight kilos and will bring $500,000 or more.

Despite the dilution, so suggestive is coke's mystique, and so eager are people to believe in its efficacy, that buyers usually feel that they get high on it anyway. As a Manhattan coke connoisseur puts it, "Anyone who puts out a hundred bucks for a gram figures it has to be good."

The cocaine trade may be the most lucrative form of commerce in the world. Periodic glimpses of its staggering scale are afforded by headlines such as those in Wilmington, N.C., early this month. DEA and U.S. Customs officials swooped in on a twin-engine Cessna that made an unscheduled nighttime landing, arresting the pilot and a passenger and seizing their cargo of 440 lbs. of cocaine. The estimated wholesale value of the shipment: $16 million.

The drug's main port of entry is Miami. By no coincidence, the Miami branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is the only branch bank in the U.S. Reserve system to show a cash surplus — $4.75 billion worth in 1980. A likely explanation: laundered cash from drugs.

Allan Pringle, deputy regional director for the DEA, says of Miami: "The brokers are here, the financiers are here, the heads of the organizations are here." More than 80% of all cocaine seized worldwide is confiscated in Florida — yet by the most optimistic estimate, seizures of smuggled dope account for no more than 10% of the total traffic entering southern Florida. Arrests of cocaine smugglers and dealers pose a huge logistical problem: what to do with the confiscated cash. Says Pringle: "In some cases we've had so much cash on our hands that we've had difficulty transporting it for storage. We're talking literally about billions in small bills."

"We were being overwhelmed," says Peter Bensinger, whose recent firing by the Reagan Administration was precipitated by the DEA'S poor showing. Says Miami Police Lieut. Robert Lament, who heads the department's narcotics detail at the city's airport: "It's an epidemic right now. If you took all the drug money out of south Florida, the economy would totally collapse."

Thanks to drug-generated income, buyers in southern Florida frequently shell out cash for expensive yachts or condominiums. Seldom is a question asked or an eyelid batted in such cases. As Miami Herald Editor Jim Hampton observes, "What should a real estate dealer do when a man in his late 20s or 30s with no visible source of income plunks down $250,000 cash for a house or condo?

What should a banker do when a customer's account shows huge cash deposits, frequent wire transfers of funds to numbered accounts abroad, and other evidence that the banker knows is suspicious? None of these businessmen can be expected to turn away the customer. He'll simply find another seller who'll shrug and say, 'Well, there's nothing illegal about paying cash. And what am I anyway, a one-man morals squad?' "

With such huge profits at stake, the Colombian connection works with savage efficiency. Once landed in the U.S., the drug is distributed largely by grim professionals, many of them expatriated Cubans. The Colombians and Cubans are known as the "cocaine cowboys" for their willingness to kill in order to protect their racket. According to the DEA there were 135 confirmed drug-related murders in Florida's Dade County last year. Most were connected with the cocaine trade, say the authorities.

The "cowboy" brigades are as tightly organized as the military. Not only can they afford the best boats, planes, navigational equipment and weaponry that money can buy, but they have also hired experienced military talent to supervise their operations. The smugglers have their own intelligence, counterintelligence and reconnaissance units. Their logic is as blunt as their favorite Mac-10 submachine gun: any sizable bust by the feds must of necessity be the result of a tipoff. You find the squealer and eliminate him.

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