The Colombian Connection

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

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Major coke dealers have bought furniture factories, which churn out coke-filled lamps and stools for the discerning buyer. Forty pounds of coke was recently seized in a load of South American furniture being trucked from Grand Rapids to Detroit. Compressing machines have allowed exporters to conceal their coke inside products ranging from record jackets to water skis. Cocaine can even be dissolved in liquor or perfume (it is easily recovered after passing customs). Water containing dissolved cocaine can be soaked into cotton clothes and retrieved days later with a loss of only about 10%. Middle-size traders often hire "mules," innocent-looking travelers, to walk their goods through customs; they profess ignorance if caught. A former Los Angeles probation officer and his Colombian wife were arrested with five associates last month; 6 lbs. of coke were concealed in the soles of their wedge shoes.

Braniff Flight 922 from Bogota to Los Angeles is nicknamed "the cocaine special." One scam is for a passenger to hide the powder somewhere on the plane, clear customs in Los Angeles, reboard the plane for the continuation to San Francisco, then collect his hidden coke. Panel bolts in many planes are visibly worn from smugglers' screwdrivers. Four unclaimed kilos were found last month in one jet's nose cone.

Yet another smuggling technique involves an artful use of the mails. Phil is a young entrepreneur from Chicago who went to Colombia last year on vacation. Like many vacationing students, he happened to stumble across someone in the "snow" business. Nervous but eager, he went one night to see his new friend Rafael at a house on a back street of Bogota's barrio. He had to bring $3,000. Rafael was holding a .38-cal. automatic when he opened the door, but he was ready to deal. For two hours they packaged 18-gram portions of cocaine in cellophane, attached them to greeting cards with flypaper and placed the cards in business envelopes. At different intervals and from different places, the cards, 47 in all, were mailed to the business address of one of Phil's friends in Chicago. Phil never opened the envelopes; he merely picked them up and delivered them to a local dealer recommended by Rafael, charging him $1,000 an oz. For his work and $3,000 investment, Phil made $25,000. He repeated the scam for a few more months; then, $100,000 later, he pocketed his winnings and retired.

Despite such examples of outsiders' getting involved, the Colombians have been fairly successful in keeping the traffic to themselves. They can recognize each other by their accents, and their clannishness has made it difficult for the police to infiltrate their operations.

The cocaine distribution capital of America today is probably Jackson Heights, a quiet, middle-class residential section of Queens in New York City, within walking distance of La Guardia Airport. Despite the elevated train tracks over Roosevelt Avenue, the neighborhood is neat and clean and, except for those in the drug trade, safe. At present 200,000 Colombian immigrants live there, most of them working in garment factories or running small legitimate businesses. But in the early '70s, half a dozen Colombian gangs, a network of perhaps 1,000, established the connection there.

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