Federal authorities arrested 20 people, most of them current or former longshoremen, on charges of smuggling massive amounts of cocaine through Miami on cruise ships or in cargo containers from Colombia. Two other suspects, Ernie Acosta and Fernando Martinez -- alleged to be the main importers of the cocaine -- are wanted as fugitives. All 22 were indicted on trafficking or conspiracy charges in three related operations aimed at breaking up smuggling through Miami's busy port.
"The longshoremen involved have had their grip on the Port of Miami for far too long and these cases go a long way to loosening that stranglehold," U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis said. "These conspiracies could not and would not have taken place without a trusted insider -- that is what the drug traffickers are looking for."
The Port of Miami is a hub for trade with Latin America and Europe and also calls itself the capital of the cruise industry.
In one case, longshoremen unloaded containers carrying legitimate cargo from Colombia such as coffee, and set them in easily accessible areas. They allegedly opened them up for outside associates to pick up the cocaine concealed inside, then resealed them before a customs inspection.
It was a "massive and ultimately very successful smuggling enterprise," bringing in 20,000 kilos of cocaine between 1992 and 1997, Lewis said. Sixteen people were arrested on Tuesday, one of whom gave himself up, by agents working on what they called Operation Bug Spray after the cargo of one container.
In a second case, three longshoremen had allegedly agreed to unload and deliver a shipment of cocaine hidden in the Royal Caribbean cruise liner Sovereign of the Seas. The cocaine was fake and so were the traffickers, who were undercover agents. The longshoremen accepted $1,000 to do the job, Lewis said.
Lewis said he could not say that the operations had wiped out drug smuggling at the port. Asked if they indicated widespread criminality in the International Longshoreman's Association, he said.: "I'm not going to say the union is corrupt. I am saying that there are serious problems that need to be addressed."
Customs agent Zach Mann said the Customs Service seized 80 percent of all the cocaine nabbed by federal authorities, and of that, 30 percent was in South Florida. "South Florida is still a hot market," he said. - (Reuters)