By Diana Washington Valdez
El Paso Times
The bay in Miami, Florida. "The Mexican cartels are very, very powerful, and in a place like Miami that is heavily Hispanic, they've been able to blend right in," George McNenny, a former U.S. Customs Service agent who retired in El Paso, said.
Peacocks lounging in mango trees and coconut groves swaying with the ocean winds are part of the landscape in South Florida -- one of the world's favorite tourist destinations.
When the sun sets, the party scenes come alive at nightclubs and beaches where all kinds of drugs flow like the sea waves that ebb in and out of the coastline.
It seems that the golden days of Florida's cocaine trade hardly ended when law enforcement rounded up the state's legendary kingpins of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
One of the events from then that's etched in Miami's memory was the 1979 shooting spree reminiscent of Mexico's drug violence today.
Two men jumped out of an armored truck at the Dadeland Mall and shot two men inside a liquor store. Police identified the victims as a drug dealer from Colombia and his bodyguard.
"I was there when the mall shooting occurred," said George McNenny, a former U.S. Customs Service agent who retired in El Paso. "It was during the 'cocaine cowboy' days."
McNenny, a native of Havana, Cuba, also served in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as a special agent with assignments in various cities that included Miami.
Miami's "cocaine cowboys" era was marked by legends like Carlos Lehder and Max Mermelstein, both major drug barons, and Griselda Blanco, a Colombian woman whose Miami organization was suspected in at least 200 homicides. Drug violence was so rampant that Miami by then had the highest homicide rate in the United States.
Sandy Gonzalez, a former DEA official in El Paso and a native of Cuba, also served in the Miami area.
"After the 'cocaine cowboys,' the Colombians were the big guys, the cocaine source and suppliers, who dominated the drug trade in Florida," Gonzalez said. "The Cuban gangs were the distributors. After that, the focus changed to the Mexican cartels.
"The DEA's biggest division at the time was based in Miami, and we had a lot of agents working in Florida."
McNenny said "the Mexican cartels are very, very powerful, and in a place like Miami that is heavily Hispanic, they've been able to blend right in."
About a million Latinos of Cuban descent live in Miami. Other Latinos come from Puerto Rican, South American, Central American or Mexican backgrounds.
Gonzalez and other anti-drug investigators worked hard to disrupt the cocaine trafficking routes between Colombia, the Caribbean islands and Florida. He was part of "Operation BAT" that broke up the pipeline that the cocaine dealers had established through the Bahamas.
Fernando Vasquez, a retired Cuban businessman in Miami, said not much has changed since he arrived in Florida about 30 years ago.
Easy to get drugs
"It's very easy for people to get drugs in the Miami area," Vasquez said. "My work focused mainly on the tourist industry, and it was hard not to notice the drug scene. I remember the big deal they made when the police arrested the so-called 'cocaine cowboys,' but nothing's really changed."
Drug investigators said Mexican drug cartels, particularly the Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, have filled the void left by the earlier cocaine kings and queens.
Guzman's cartel is the same one that's waging a bloody battle at the border for control of the Juárez-El Paso smuggling corridor.
Florida has two designated High-Intensity Drug-Trafficking Areas (HIDTA's) that keep track of drug-trafficking in the north and south parts of the state.
"Colombian and Mexican (drug trafficking organizations) supply most of the available illicit drugs in the South Florida HIDTA region to African American, Caucasian, Cuban, Dominican, Haitian, Hispanic, Jamaican and Puerto Rican distributors, and to street gang members," according to the HIDTA's 2010 Market Analysis.
"Midlevel and retail-level drug distribution typically occurs at open-air drug markets, in clubs, apartment buildings, motels, and vehicles, (and) on beaches and at prearranged meeting sites such as parking lots," the report also said.
In other words, drugs are everywhere.
The Sinaloa cartel appears to have increasingly strong ties to Florida. Four years ago, a Gulfstream II jet crashed in Mexico's state of Yucatan stuffed with several tons of cocaine.
The cocaine and plane, which had first flown out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., picked up drugs in Colombia and crashed in Mexico, belonged to Guzman. Guzman had bought 50 similar planes, Mexican authorities said.
Once the drugs arrive in South Florida, an estimated 370 street gangs work to distribute and sell them throughout the region, federal officials said.
Vasquez said, "The airport is one of the busiest in the world. An airplane departs or arrives at the Miami International Airport every 52 seconds."
That kind of air traffic is too tempting for drug dealers to resist. Last year, the DEA arrested 27 people at the Miami International Airport on suspicion of drug-trafficking.
The Miami Police Department tries to keep on top of drug law violators with a drug surveillance unit that supports the DEA and FBI, which have broader jurisdiction to handle international investigations. Miami Police Officer Jeffrey Giordano reported that one of the unit's recent cases netted six arrests in the 3000 block of Northwest 11th Place, along with the seizure of an AK-47 and ammunition.
"The charges ranged from possession of marijuana to possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon," Giordano said.
The levels of drug violence in Miami are not what they were in the 1980s, and they are far from the astounding numbers reported in Juárez, but the weapons and methods are the same.
Police said the latest trend they are battling in the Miami area is the proliferation of a clandestine pain-pill industry. Some of these drugs are made in labs in other U.S. states and brought into Florida to be dispensed by some of the pain-management clinics that popped up in recent years.
Lots of money
"There's a lot of money in Miami," said McNenny, who will appear in a History Channel special on the drug trade later this year. "And this also means there's going to be money-laundering."
This is evident from the new high-rises in beach communities where popular singer Gloria Estefan and her composer-husband Emilio Estefan have opened a couple of hotels and restaurants.
Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez, who recently split up, bought a $9 million penthouse in one of the new high-rises in a neighborhood filled with an endless list of other rich and famous people.
Another group emerging from South Florida's drug trade are Venezuelans. Authorities have traced some of the state's drug-trafficking to Venezuela sources.
Many affluent Venezuelan business owners moved to Doral, a young incorporated city in the Miami area, after disagreeing with the policies of controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. They have set up their stores and services in Doral. And some are suspected of running money-laundering ventures.