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A favorite strategy of marijuana smugglers is for a drug-laden "mother ship," usually an aging freighter, to sail from Colombia or the Caribbean and then stay bobbing 50 miles or so off the Florida coast. On long hauls, drug runners motor out to the mother ship in yachts and fishing boats to pick up the cargo and then shuttle back to the mainland, docking anywhere along some 3,000 miles of South Florida coastline; on shorter hauls, they roar out in souped-up racing speedboats, called "cigarette" boats after the tobacco-bootlegging vessels of the 1930s. Costing as much as $250,000 and able to reach speeds of up to 70 m.p.h., many of the cigarette boats are outfitted with such sophisticated equipment as radar scanners and infra-red night-vision scopes. Cocaine, however, is usually flown into the U.S. by airplane. Customs officials estimate that some 80 planes secretly land in the U.S. every night carrying cargos of white powder, most of them landing in South Florida.
Battling the dope runners are the combined forces of the U.S. Customs Service the Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as local lawmen. But they all are fighting a losing battle. Last year law enforcement officials seized 3.2 million Ibs. of marijuana, with a street value of $ 1.3 billion, and 2,353 Ibs. of cocaine worth $5.8 billion, in and around South Florida. So much dope was seized that the police began trucking it to the Florida Power and Light Co. to burn in its generators (732 Ibs. of marijuana equal 1 bbl. of oil, one of the odder statistics to emerge from the region). Yet officials estimate that perhaps as much as ten times the amount seized was smuggled into the region. At the moment, Bade County police have a stash of 162,000 Ibs. of marijuana waiting to be entered as evidence in court cases. The Customs Service has 200 seized cigarette boats and 50 airplanes, including a World War II-era A26 bomber that was, ironically, used by Customs agents on drug cases before it was bought by a marijuana ring.
Anglos tend to work the marijuana trade, while the cocaine market is controlled by Colombians and Cubans. No matter what their specialty, the illegal entrepreneurs can be easily spotted. Young Anglos wearing scruffy Levi's and T shirts, gold Rolex watches and ropes of gold chain sit around the marinas waiting for the next call from a mother ship. Current pay for one night's work piloting a "cigarette" averages $50,000, while the wages for unloading the bales are $5,000 to $10,000 a night.
Cuban dealers favor Mercedes Benzes and bodyguards dressed in dark suits and carrying two guns (one under the coat and one strapped to the ankle). José Medrano Alvero Cruz, nicknamed El Padrino, always travels in a Rolls-Royce protected by cars full of bodyguards. Alvero, who is fond of listening to the theme song from The Godfather on his car stereo, never talks on the telephone and keeps himself insulated from any drug deal through relatives and friends. Nevertheless, he was recently convicted for tax evasion.
The Colombians are the most secretive of all, preferring to keep the business in the family. Officials estimate that there are from 50 to 150 top Colombian traffickers in South Florida, with another 200 or so