Showing posts with label smuggling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label smuggling. Show all posts

24 February 2019

Remembering Miami 1980


The Chinese have a saying that runs along the lines of "May you live in exciting times." For a guy who was 12 years out of Vietnam and had joined federal law enforcement, for the adrenaline, 2-1/2 years after the SE Asian tour, Miami became a very exciting time.

It was late summer of 1980 and Miami was pretty much an open city. Castro had emptied his prisons and mental hospitals of those who could get someone to pick them up in boats at the Port of Mariel. Other Cuban citizens bribed their way out to join the flotilla headed to Florida. These people soon became known as the Marielitos. Some of the ones who made it to Miami ended up being held in the Orange Bowl stadium, but with the beginning of football season, they were moved to Liberty City, a tent city under an I-95 overpass inside Miami. (Think Scarface with Al Pacino as a rising drug lord in Miami.) The noise under the overpass from constant traffic was relentless and overwhelming. Plus, tent city residents had trouble finding a sponsor to get them out of the place, and those that did had trouble getting jobs because they didn't speak English. Faced with depression and a bleak future, some of them would do almost anything to survive. Like the song says, it's the lure of easy money.

Meanwhile, the go-fast boats were coming in with their loads from the Bahama banks, the Cocaine Cowboys were in full swing moving their product, mother ships were coming up from Colombia, airplanes were dropping their loads in the Florida swamps where drug crews waited to retrieve the illicit cargo, and dealers were taking grocery sacks of U.S. currency to local banks after their sales. In the beginning, dealers merely weighed their money until they got their own counting machines. If a van carrying a couple hundred pounds of marijuana got in a wreck on the Interstate, the driver and shotgun rider simply walked away and disappeared into the populace. Drug dealers were shot by rival organizations who left the drugs and cash behind to show it was just business, a territory thing, not a drug rip-off. After a while, all that left-behind money with no one to claim it became a temptation to some of the responding homicide cops. Some of that money got split up and disappeared. Later, some of the left-behind drugs also got split up and sold instead of going into evidence. Nobody was going to claim ownership of the drugs anyway was the theory. When the time came there wasn't enough drug homicides to respond to, some of the dirty cops created their own. Honest cops weren't sure who to trust. One of the honest cops came over to us and later testified to what he knew.

With all that drug money to spend, Miami underwent a building boom. Money talked and some got richer. Others got dead.

The Miami Regional Director sent one of his agent groups south on an interdiction program to the Caribbean. To replace his lost manpower, he drew from other offices for a "special." I went down to Miami on a "special" op, along with agents from Minneapolis, the Arizona border, the Texas border, New Orleans, and other offices. We took over the duties of those guys gone off to the Caribbean program. Our new group worked with the U.S. Coast Guard on the northbound mother ships laden with tons of pot. Some nights, we found ourselves off the Miami coast with Customs, hunting in wolf packs to catch the go-fast boats coming in from the Bahama banks. We ran our own go-fast boats seized from previous smugglers. We conducted surveillance on clandestine landing strips in the Keys. We escorted tons of seized pot up to the incinerators in Orlando just to get rid of the massive inventory in evidence. It's a heady time, just keep your automatic handy. Bullet proof vests weren't in vogue yet.

We ate our suppers in Cuban restaurants and did our laundry down in Miami's Calle Ocho, the Cuban district, hoping no one recognized us from some of our excursions in the city or out on the water. There's a Latin rhythm on the streets and Mambo clubs at night, with Cuban beauties escorted by macho males in high Cuban-heeled shoes. It's a style, a culture, a living on the edge. Easy money and quickly spent. Miami Vice isn't far off.

Eventually, someone in the main office got the bright idea to "sell" some of the massive pot inventory in a sting operation. A few hundred pounds (after the court case is done) was transferred to a rental truck parked inside a rented storage unit. Marijuana brokers who are unaware they are dealing with undercover agents, go out and solicited buyers for our product. The broker and the buyer show up at the storage unit, money changed hands, the pot load was taken and they leave. The broker goes his own way. He isn't bothered yet because we need him to bring in more buyers, but a few miles from the site, the latest buyers are stopped and arrested. Samples are taken from each pot bale for evidence in court and the remainder is driven back to the storage unit to be "sold" again. Naturally, the buying money is seized for court and forfeiture. The recent buyers? They're going away for a long vacation in the grey bar hotel.

Then comes the alleged time when an unmarked police car pulls up to the storage unit and two men get out. One shows a badge, identifies himself as a plain clothes cop to the undercover agents and then draws his gun. The other guy checks out the rental truck and prepares to drive away with the pot. The cop with the badge is getting ready to kill the undercover agents until they identify themselves. Then it becomes chaos and paranoia. Badge guy beats feet for his unmarked cop car, but is quickly surrounded. The other guy tries to drive off in the rental truck. Surveillance agents descend on the scene en masse. One agent allegedly steps up on the rental truck's foot board on the passenger side and empties his .45 into the rental truck driver. He then steps down and the truck crashes into a tree. That's the end of the "sale" program.

Like the Chinese said, "May you live in exciting times." Yeah, I think I did. Hard to imagine all that was almost four decades ago, and yet some scenes and faces are as vivid as if they were just last week.

So raise your glasses to those who were there in a time gone by.

A toast to the old days now faded into history.

Exciting times.

31 August 2016

Bound for Valparaiso in a Rowboat


by Robert Lopresti

It's the end of the summer and I don't feel like tackling anything too heavy. So let's talk about smuggling illegal substances.  Better yet, let's sing about it.

I am sure you have heard of narcocorridos, the Mexican song genre that celebrates and heroizes people who smuggle drugs north across the U.S. border.  Well, that is not our subject for the day. 

Instead we have a song from my friend Zeke Hoskin, discussing the true story of some earlier smugglers heading in a different direction.  You may remember Zeke from his occasional words of wisdom in our comment section.  He wanted you to know that he wrote most of the song on Canada Day, 1992, while waiting to cross the border.



That's his wife Flip Breskin on guitar, by the way.

Enjoy.

08 October 2015

The First Cartel


by Eve Fisher

Well, probably not the first, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main drug cartels were selling opium to Asia, and shipping the money home to Britain and the United States and the Netherlands.  And I'm not talking about little dribs and drabs:  in the mid-1800's, the opium trade provided one-third of British colonial revenues, and those millions of pounds (trillions in today's money) were just what actually made it home to the Crown.

The East India Company was the major player in India, where the opium was grown and processed. It was a private British joint-stock venture that effectively ruled India from 1757-1858.  Raw opium was processed into the smokeable stuff for the China market (in Western Europe, people preferred drinkable laudanum) - chests weighing about 133 pounds each, which went for $1,000 dollars (about $25,000 in today's money.)  The East India Company established a trading post in Canton, China in 1699, but leased out the trading rights to the trading companies, or hongs, which took the opium from Canton and smuggled it into China (via rivers, etc.).  The major players were:

Jardine and Matheson
  • Jardine, Matheson and Company, a/k/a The Honorable Company, was founded in 1832 in Canton with the partnership of William Jardine and James Matheson, both University of Edinburgh graduates. They were always the biggest trading company, or hong, and (having diversified heavily in the 20th century) are still going strong in Asia, even though they're incorporated out of Bermuda.  (Their official website is interesting: http://www.jardines.com/  NOTE: Jardine-Matheson was fictionalized - and I would say cleaned up to the point of unrecognizability - by James Clavell in Tai-Pan.)  
  • Dent & Company, another British smuggler under Thomas Dent's leadership.
  • The Dutch East India Company, about which I know tragically little.  
  • And the Americans:  Russell & Company was the major player.  One of the senior officers was Warren Delano, grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  (In case you're wondering where some of the Roosevelt money came from...)  The other officer, Samuel Russell, was filthy rich and left a Russell Trust, which (among other things) is the original source of endowment funding for the Skull & Bones Society at Yale.  
Jardine-Matheson, Dent & Company, and Russell & Company all began - unofficially - as agents of the East India Company, and then for the British government.  They also took on more "official" jobs. James Matheson was the Danish consul for years, Thomas Dent the Sardinian consul, even though neither were from either country.  And they became hugely rich.

You see, up until the early 1800s, there was a major trade imbalance with China (and you thought that was a modern phenomenon!).  There were a lot of reasons:  China wasn't particularly interested in trade, they kept the British and other merchants hemmed into specific treaty ports and didn't let them into the rest of the country, 90% of their population was too poor to buy anything, and finally, the British didn't have much that they wanted.  Except silver.  So, for 130 years, China sold the West silk, porcelain, navigation equipment, firecrackers, and above all, tea.  And since in those days trade involved either hard goods or hard cash, the British were being drained of silver at an alarming rate. And then someone got the bright idea to sell them opium.


Charles Elliot 
The fact that opium was illegal in China didn't matter.  The British smuggled it in, as much as 1,400 tons of opium a year.  And, as the opium flowed in, the silver flowed out (in 1800's dollars, $21,000,000 a year; in today's terms, multiply that by about 25,000, making it $52.5 trillion a year), destabilizing the Chinese economy, not to mention creating a huge number of hopeless drug addicts.  Eventually even the Imperial Court - locked up in the Forbidden City in distant Beijing - launched a war on drugs. The Emperor sent an imperial commissioner Lin Zexu to Canton, where he seized 2.6 million pounds of opium and burned it.  (A lot of boats sailed and held themselves downwind of that fire...)

Now the British charge d'affaires in Canton was Brian Thornton's and my favorite 19th century British agent, Captain Charles Elliot, R.N.  He basically said that that opium (despite being illegal) was the property of the British crown and the Chinese needed to reimburse the merchants.  They wouldn't, Elliot seized Hong Kong for starters, and the war was on.

There aren't too many wars which have been fought for the specific purpose of requiring the losing nation to legalize drugs.  The Opium Wars were about the only ones I can think of.  And, in terms of size and wealth disparities, it was the equivalent of the Colombian government aligning with the Colombian drug cartels to declare war on the United States in order to legalize cocaine in the 1970s. And winning.  And, getting the following results:
Sir Robert Hart
  • China had to open more treaty ports to foreigners.
  • China had to give Britain Hong Kong permanently.
  • China had to pay a $21,000,000 indemnity for all the costs of the war.  (In today's terms, $52 trillion.)
  • China had to give the British the right to set, control, and collect its own tariffs.  NOTE:  The Imperial Maritime Customs Service was manned by British officers from 1854-1950.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Look, it takes a long, long time to extort $52 trillion from any country, much less the additional revenues that Britain consistently expected. Over time, besides collecting maritime trade taxes and managing domestic customs administration, the IMCS collected maritime trade taxes, managed domestic customs administration, postal administration, harbor and waterway management, weather reporting, and published monthly Returns of Trade.  The most famous Inspector-General was Sir Robert Hart, who held the post from 1863-1911.  
  • All foreigners got the equivalent of diplomatic immunity (called extraterritoriality back then); the right to be tried only by its own consul (i.e., whichever Jardine-Matheson-Dent was there). What really stuck in the Chinese craw was that this was extended to any Chinese employees of foreigners, making them suddenly beyond Chinese law.
  • China had to allow foreigners to travel freely into the Chinese interior and live in Beijing.
  • China had to legalize opium.
  • China had to legalize Christianity.  (You may wonder why China was upset about this.  I'll talk more about that, and the one and only Karl Gutzlaff, missionary and opium trader, in another post.)
Opium Den, unromanticized by Hollywood

Imagine the United States having to submit to Colombian rule.  Or any other...  Imagine having a foreign power in charge of our taxes and tariffs for almost a hundred years.  Imagine having our country carved up into "spheres of influence", until there's hardly anything officially Chinese left. And now wonder why the Chinese have viewed, and still view, the West with suspicion.  We think we have excellent reasons to distrust China.  I'd say that if we do, it's called revenge.