The Colombian Connection

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

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The Mafia underestimated the American appetite for drugs and has been unable to dominate the lucrative cocaine and marijuana market. This fits the pattern established at the 1957 Apalachin, N.Y., meeting of Mafia dons, where Carlo Gambino counseled that the drug trade was bringing too much heat. A number of old-line families moved out of the business then and have stayed out. But there is so much money involved, police report, that four families — the old Lucchese, Colombo, Bonanno and Genovese clans — are starting to move in after all. One group of Italians was discussing the cocaine trade in the back room of a Bronx restaurant not long ago when they were visited by a pair of Colombians, one of whom had a machine gun. The gun jammed, and the Italians and Colombians ran off in different directions. Says New York Narcotics Officer Bob Mogevaro: "When push comes to shove, watch out."

American enforcement, like Colombia's, is hampered by corruption. Says Dade County, Fla., Chief of Narcotics Investigation Jack Rafferty: "The money floating around has the potential to corrupt nearly anyone." Coast Guard officers have reported attempted bribes of as much as $15,000, and one secretary working for the DEA in Florida went to jail for stealing secret intelligence files. In Key West, four city police were charged last September with serving as lookouts while marijuana was unloaded at a city dock by a smuggling ring. In Jamaica Bay, Long Island, a fishing boat named The Darlene C, carrying 30 tons of marijuana, was seized last November, but the customs and Coast Guard officers let the two dozen smugglers escape during the bungled and uncoordinated raid. TIME has learned that the smugglers fled because they were tipped off by a well-placed informant in one of the law enforcement agencies. To top that, 1,300 lbs. of Colombian Gold, most of it from the raided boat, were stolen from a "secret" DEA warehouse just three weeks later, once again on the basis of an inside tip.

At the source, however, a major crackdown has been ordered by Colombian President Turbay Ayala. The various Colombian agencies combatting drugs have been unified as a new group, the Judicial Police. Inefficiency and bureaucratic jealousy got the agency off to a slow start: the military, in fact, refused to supply Judicial Police with weapons. U.S. officials ended up smuggling 100 pistols in to them past Colombian customs. Last fall the Colombian army placed the Guajira peninsula under military restrictions, and within two months, the government claims to have captured 15 planes, including a four-engine DC-6; seized 36 boats; confiscated 259 weapons, including an American M16; and arrested 318 people. More than 3,000 troops are taking part in the effort. Says General Villarreal: "There are so many fields under marijuana cultivation that we couldn't possibly destroy them all. So we are operating against the warehouse and loading areas, the beaches and airstrips. The traffickers have already suffered major injury because they can't move the marijuana out and it's losing its potency." But there is no evidence yet that the crackdown has made a major dent in the flow of grass.

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