The Colombian Connection

How a billion-dollar network smuggles pot and coke into the U.S.

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Air transport is only one of marijuana's ways north. Colombia has 1,300 miles of jagged coastline, from which it is easy enough to load 20 tons or more of grass aboard freighters, trawlers or large (often stolen) yachts. These mother ships, as they are called, are monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard at a series of "choke points" as they work their way north through the Caribbean. But American authorities have little power as long as the drug ships hover outside the twelve-mile limit of U.S. territorial waters. Using sophisticated electronic equipment, the smugglers on these mother ships monitor Government surveillance and attempt to rendezvous with souped-up speedboats and pleasure craft that dart out from the U.S. coast at night on duty-free shopping sprees, just as in the old rum-running days of Prohibition.

The Winnebago lurking on the shore of Chesapeake Bay one recent weekend looked like any other mobile camper, but with the radio scanner and communication equipment inside, it resembled a war room in the Pentagon. As a command post for the onshore operations of a marijuana-smuggling confederacy, it had been monitoring the area's police for a week, preparing for a mother ship's arrival in nearby waters. The camper was in contact with small trucks and vans waiting along the coast for the merchandise. As the ship reached the southern tip of Assateague Island, five miles off Virginia, the camper, using code that would bewilder a CB buff, arranged meetings with the contact speedboats and guided them back to rendezvous points on the shore.

When the Coast Guard gets a break, it is often by chance: Coast Guardsmen had boarded one mother ship last July when a smuggler's plane, unaware of the seizure, flew over and dropped a note giving directions for a rendezvous with a cabin cruiser. The officers dressed up as deck hands, kept the appointment with the yacht, sold three 80-lb. bales of grass, and then arrested the American buyers. For each such capture, the Coast Guard cutter gets to display a marijuana leaf on its hull.

Despite the ever larger captures (more than 5 million lbs. of marijuana in the first nine months of last year, compared with 2 million lbs. in all of 1977), Coast Guard Admiral John Hayes admits, "We are at almost a wartime status, but we are interdicting only about 10% of the illegal drugs coming in." Most dealers feel even that is an overestimation. Successful smugglers hardly bother to hide their activities. Two Florida brothers, Tracy and Darrell Boyd, once donated $10,000 to the muscular-dystrophy telethon signing themselves "the blockade runners."

Cocaine too is carried on mother ships and lumbering old planes, but since it is so much more compact than marijuana, and worth almost six times its weight in gold, there are simpler methods of shipment. A commercial air traveler flying from Bogota can make $10,000 tax free by carrying a pound about the size of a paperback book. Many passengers do. They carry the white powder on their bodies, inside candy bars or toothpaste tubes, under slightly askew wigs, sewn into leather saddles.

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