November. The days grow short, the nights cold. Time to reach for that travel brochure for, where else, South Florida, America's favorite winter playground. Hmmm, let's see now. Here is a picture of palm trees swaying gently under a cottony blue sky while a family frolics in the foamy surf. Here is a snowy white heron flitting along a river of sea grass in the Everglades, the mangrove and palmetto serene as a Sunday morning. There is a creamy stucco Palm Beach mansion, its red tile roof glinting fiercely in the sun and bougainvillea rioting, colorfully in the yard. And, of course, a couple of sunburned senior citizens of Miami Beach, he in a Hawaiian shirt and she in purple culottes, waiting their turn on the shuffleboard court.
Those snapshots of life in South Florida are as accurate today as they were a generation ago. But they are being crowded out by some altogether different scenes, a collection of photos not found in any Chamber of Commerce travel brochure. Here is a picture of a policeman leaning over the body of a Miamian whose throat has been slit and wallet emptied. There is a sleek V-planed speedboat, stripped of galleys and bunks and loaded with a half-ton of marijuana, skimming across the waters of Biscayne Bay. Here are a handful of ragged Cuban refugees, living in a tent pitched beneath a highway overpass.
South Florida—that postcard corner of the Sunshine State, that lush strip of hibiscus and condominiums stretching roughly from Palm Beach south to Key West—is a region in trouble. An epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees have slammed into South Florida with the destructive power of a hurricane. Those three forces, and a number of lesser ills, threaten to turn one of the nation's most prosperous, congenial and naturally gorgeous regions into a paradise lost.
Consider what South Florida is up against:
> When the FBI issued its annual list of the ten most crime-ridden cities in the nation last September, three of them were in South Florida: Miami (pop. 347,000) was in first place, West Palm Beach (pop. 63,000) was fifth and Fort Lauderdale (pop. 153,000) was eighth. Miami last year had the nation's highest murder rate, 70 per 100,000 residents, and this year's pace has been even higher.
> An estimated 70% of all marijuana and cocaine imported into the U.S. passes through South Florida. Drug smuggling could be the region's major industry, worth anywhere from $7 billion to $12 billion a year (vs. $12 billion for real estate and $9 billion for tourism, the area's two biggest legitimate businesses). Miami's Federal Reserve branch has a currency surplus of $5 billion, mostly in drug-generated $50 and $100 bills, or more than the nation's twelve Federal Reserve banks combined. Drug money has corrupted banking, real estate, law enforcement and even the fishing industry, whose practitioners are abandoning the pursuit of snapper and grouper for the transport of bales of marijuana ("square grouper," as fishermen call it) from freighters at sea to the mainland. About one-third of the region's murders are drug-related.
> Since the spring of 1980, when Cuban President Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to those who wanted to leave, about