The Colombian Connection

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

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"Restrepo" is 22, about average age for that specialist known as a cocaine diver. He is darker skinned than most Colombians and a good swimmer, both characteristics common to people from the Buenaventura coastal area where he was born. His role is to retrieve a 4-lb. waterproof bag of cocaine dumped overboard from a Grancolombiana line freighter docked at the Atlantic Avenue wharf in Brooklyn. He works at night, wearing a black wetsuit, and he is very cautious. A similar diver, Carlos Riascos, had his throat slit and body dumped in the river as he clambered ashore with his catch. Restrepo is also honest, at least to his trade; another diver, Asaiel Alomia, who decided last spring to keep his valuable garbage bag, was shot and killed. Restrepo brings the package to a sparsely furnished $300-a-month apartment his boss has rented in a quiet building just off Roosevelt Avenue. His fee for a night's work: $2,000.

The boss, "Martinez," has five divers working for him. He cuts the coke by 50% with borax, a cheap powder that adds a lot of weight but nothing else to the once pure coke. At each stage of dealing, the coke will be cut with substances such as procaine, lactose or—for an extra buzz —amphetamines. When finally consumed, it may be no more than 10% pure. Martinez deals only with people he knows well. It is up to these additional middlemen, who know the right artists and hairdressers and doormen, to push it further toward the users.

Around midnight, Martinez drops by a club he frequents on Atlantic Avenue carrying a pack of his 50% pure. By day the club is a pleasant bar and restaurant, but when the last diners leave, the door is locked and only the select can enter. The man who answers the door after three quick knocks nods Martinez into the red-draped dark room, with music blaring from a four-piece Latin band. After a round of beer with his friend the middleman, Martinez makes the transaction and goes home.

Although Jackson Heights is a quiet neighborhood, the cocaine dealing is dangerous. At least 14 murders there last year were related to the drug trade. Oscar Toro was part of the coke-smuggling gang of Alberto Bravo, in charge of laundering money and sending it from Jackson Heights to Bogota. One day, perhaps because it was suspected that he had skimmed some of the cash or cooperated with the police, Toro returned home to find his five-year-old daughter hanged from a rafter in the basement. The bodies of his ten-year-old son and the family's babysitter were later found nearby in an abandoned post office. Toro and his wife offered the police no help, and the murders have never been solved.

Violence among traffickers seems to be part of the trade. In the Guajira capital of Riohacha, 92 people were killed in drug wars within a period of two months. In Florida, there have been 27 unsolved drug-related murders in the past year. One case that was solved was the death of Robert Topping, son of former New York Yankee Owner Dan Topping. He was abducted from the Miami airport, robbed of $47,000 he had brought to buy cocaine, stabbed 33 times and dumped on a Miami street. Barry Adler, 19, was sentenced to life in prison plus 99 years for the crime. Said he at his sentencing: "I'm a young boy and not prepared for it."

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