Drug Policy

Miami Vice

The rise of Florida's cocaine economy


Miami was the perfect base for largescale drug smuggling. By the mid-1970s Coconut Grove was bursting with hippies, the type of smart, anti-authoritarian troublemakers who make the best smugglers. The Carter administration had pulled back on the effort to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro, leaving South Florida with an idle army of welltrained, mostly Cuban-American adepts of the dark arts that would become valuable in the cocaine smuggling business. They knew how to acquire and use weapons, how to hide money, how to surreptitiously pilot planes and boats. A speedboat could zip through any one of the Everglades' hundreds of little waterways to find a hidden place to unload, or dock elsewhere along Florida's 3,000 miles of coastline.

The infrastructure for this multibillion-dollar import business wasn't created solely for cocaine, or even for marijuana before it. South Florida had a long history of smuggling coffee, tobacco, and other products subject to tariffs. A "mother ship," either from the Caribbean or directly from Colombia, would anchor near the shore, though not close enough to be seen from land. Yachts or cigarette boats—named for the vessels that smuggled bootleg tobacco—would zip out to the offshore vessel to load up with coke. The drug also came in by air. In the late '70s and early '80s customs officials estimated that more than 80 cocaine-laden planes landed in the United States every night, mostly in Florida. In 1980 the U.S. Customs Service seized 200 cigarette boats and 50 airplanes, one of which was a World War II–era bomber. It had previously been used by customs agents investigating drug operations.

And so an area long favored by smugglers and more recently favored by countercultural types friendly to the drug trade got another shot in the arm from Ronald Reagan, as he concentrated the country's drug fighting resources on marijuana.

It took a while for the full impact to be felt. "The best thing about Miami is how close it is to the United States," goes one favorite local saying, and for a while the rest of the country really did behave as if the Florida coke trade were happening overseas. Paul Goldstein, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois–Chicago who focuses on cocaine, says the nation essentially ignored coke's gradual takeover of Miami because it wasn't happening up north, even though the city was America's murder capital throughout the '70s. "Then when crack came [to Washington and New York] in the '80s," he says, "you couldn't pick up your paper without seeing a story about it. It led people to say, 'Crack is so much worse. We've never had this problem before.' Well, they had that problem in Miami."

Ryan Grim (ryan@huffingtonpost.com) covers Congress for The Huffington Post. He is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America (Wiley).