Drug Traffic off Florida Spikes as US Turns Its Focus to Terrorism ; Shift of Antidrug Resources to Guard against Terrorists Has Increased the Boldness of Narcotics Trafficking

Article excerpt

When the Caribbean became a superhighway for drug trafficking in the 1980s, it became the inspiration for a TV show - "Miami Vice." Today, the azure waters of Florida are once again threatening to become a major artery in the narcotics trade. As US antidrug authorities have shifted their resources to the porous borders of Mexico and Canada over recent years, drug smugglers have been prompted to once again test the waters of the Sunshine State. Where's Crockett and Tubbs when you need 'em?

Even more alarming is how Sept. 11 has opened the floodgates in these pristine waters. With terrorism a top priority, no longer are US boats so vigilantly patrolling the coastal waters in search of drugs. Large amounts of antidrug resources and manpower have been diverted to that effort. The result: a boomtime for drug peddlers off America's coastlines.

"We've got the makings for a real upsurge in drug trafficking and an inability to cope with it," says William Walker, a professor of history and international relations at Florida International University in Miami. "They are seeing [drug-running] speed boats they haven't seen in south Florida in 20 years."

Indeed, the Coast Guard has seen its drug seizures plummet since crews were sent to guard ports and oil refineries. Well over half of the Coast Guard's anti-drug activities were redirected after Sept. 11, causing a 66 percent drop in cocaine seizures from a year ago, and a more than 90 percent drop in marijuana seizures. Experts say that the redeployment of resources is even affecting the Pacific coast, where drug traffickers are attempting routes they haven't tried in decades - or even creating new ones.

"One consequence of our shifting efforts is going to be less drug interdiction on the oceans, which creates an opening for traffickers," says Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

FBI agents are now spending much of their time chasing the money trail of Osama bin Laden instead of the money trail of drug lords. Customs surveillance planes and radar, once used to detect drug transit routes, are now devoted to counter-terrorism surveillance. And many DEA agents have been reassigned to airport security or as sky marshals.

"Unfortunately, this is the way this game is played," says Stan Furce, director of the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. "The bad guys are always trying to get drugs into the US where they think they will get the most payoff. They know the Coast Guard has pulled back, and they are taking advantage of that. …