Cocaine Stowaways

February 02, 1991

Stowaways hiding in a ship's rudder cavity provided a surprise for New York's harbor police recently and illustrated some of the new difficulties for the illegal drug-importing business.

The pattern is clear. During times when drug importers had unrestricted access to South Florida's shores, "cocaine cowboys" fought street battles for control of a burgeoning market. Marijuana and cocaine streamed in from Latin American countries in private planes and on commercial flights. But the open lawlessness was met by tough new intra-agency strike forces, tighter coastal patrols, aerial surveillance and police penetration of narcotic rings. Seizures shot up and traffickers lost up to half of their incoming shipments.

That forced the curtailment of much of the cross-border marijuana trade and forced as well the rise of a new, more sophisticated breed of narcotics smuggler. New routes were developed through Mexico into other Gulf Coast states. Aircraft became a vehicle of choice for the traffickers.

A military crackdown was a logical result. Coast Guard and Navy radar operators caught many smugglers' planes sneaking in, and Customs Service investigators pounced. Drugs still pour into the country, but the huge seizures at major drug warehouses on the U.S. East and West Coasts in 1989 and 1990 clearly made it uncomfortable for the smugglers.

Now, in 1991, the searchers are getting better at finding the drug traffickers' tracks. Persuading two men, under fear of death for their families, to undertake a harrowing ride near an oil tanker's pounding propeller to smuggle 366 pounds of cocaine to New York is a sign of desperation, not of ingenuity. It didn't work because law officers had already figured out that certain ship designs provided places where a smuggler might secret away illicit cargo and had begun looking into them.

The two frightened, half-frozen men huddled into the tanker's rudder space when they were nabbed by law enforcement authorities served as a grim reminder to traffickers that their chances of winning the drug war seem to be diminishing.

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