Futility in South Florida : Despite Massive Effort, Drugs Flow

Times Staff Writers

The nation has waged its most forceful, innovative and costly drug war in South Florida, pitting thousands of armed agents and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment against the drug smugglers.

In four years, the nation’s best anti-drug effort has produced record cocaine seizures, arrests and convictions.

But the availability of drugs in the Southeast and the nation has not decreased.

In fact, since the effort was set in place, cocaine use nationally has tripled, from 33 tons to more than 100 tons, and an estimated 70% of the nation’s cocaine is still coming ashore in Florida, drug agents say.


The federal General Accounting Office, which is preparing a report on deficiencies in the nation’s drug-interdiction program, notes that the system is highly vulnerable and that “drug smugglers continue to smuggle drugs into South Florida in large quantities, taking advantage of weaknesses in the existing interdiction system.”

South Florida became the major port of drug entry in the late 1970s because of its thousands of miles of coastline, hundreds of commercial airports and clandestine airstrips, international banking activity and nearness to South America.

Miami residents watched fearfully as their tourist mecca became what one congressman called “the drug capital of the country.” But in late 1981, Miami Citizens Against Crime, a grass-roots group, successfully lobbied for a tax that beefed up local law enforcement and judicial system resources. State attorney’s offices were expanded, community crime watch programs initiated, drug education programs started in schools and drug laws toughened.

The state asked the federal government for help, setting into motion what became a new way to fight drug crime nationally, combining federal and local resources. President Reagan established the South Florida Task Force to coordinate federal and local drug interdiction efforts. The plan was highly praised, combining efforts of a dozen federal agencies.

Drug Enforcement Administration seizures in the Miami Field Division increased from 4,000 pounds in 1982 to 50,000 pounds in 1985. During the first four months of this year, DEA seized 17,000 pounds of cocaine, compared to 7,000 pounds during the same period last year. Drug purity levels are higher than ever and the prices have decreased dramatically, according to Peter F. Gruden, DEA special agent in charge.

Florida Gov. Bob Graham said that although there was an initial decrease of crime in that state, “the deadly cocaine industry has begun to overwhelm our efforts to make Florida a safe place to live.”


Graham, who believes that more military forces must be used against smugglers, said that 64% of the state’s homicides are drug- and alcohol-related, that 70% of street crime results from drug trade and that the economic cost of substance abuse has grown to $2.5 billion a year.

Janet Reno, state attorney for Dade County, noted that the effort has taxed the criminal justice system. Most of the federal money “ends up for major federal trafficking investigations. Meanwhile, in the state criminal justice system, the (drug) caseload gets greater without having enough prosecutors to handle it, without having enough judges, without having enough courtrooms and in the end not having enough jails,” she said.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), head of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, noted the futility of the South Florida effort in a recent hearing and questioned the effects of throwing more and more manpower along the borders.

“It is time for all of us involved in the federal drug policy to ask some hard questions about the thrust and direction of our national drug-control effort. All the talent and resources that have been centered in the Southeast have had little, if any, impact on streets.”