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#2236: Ships yield cocaine haul Hidden drugs worth $23 million (fwd)
Published Tuesday, February 8, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Ships yield cocaine haul Hidden drugs worth $23 million
By ARNOLD MARKOWITZ
Thousands of pounds of cocaine worth an estimated $23 million was
extracted from the keels and hulls of four Haitian cargo ships on the
Miami River in the last 10 days, federal agencies announced Monday.
Agents in air masks and long gloves plucked kilo-sized bricks of
compressed powder through holes cut in the keel of a steel-hulled ship
called Hardness. When they were done, they counted: The 170-foot
freighter gave up 961 pounds of cocaine Monday, making the four-ship
total 2,976 pounds.
Three other ships -- Caribbean Seahorse, Croyance and Rio Star --
already had yielded a ton of Colombian cocaine, said Frank J.
Figueroa, head of Customs law enforcement in Miami. He said all four
ships are registered in Honduras, but their legitimate business is
carrying cargo from here to Haiti.
Agents suspect an ownership link between the ships, but have not yet
sorted it out. Neither is it clear yet who was supposed to receive the
cocaine or whether it all came from the same source.
''The larger issue of concern is Haiti and the flow of illegal drugs to
South Florida,'' Figueroa said. ''Haiti is one of the larger
transshipment points of illegal drugs in the Caribbean.''
Search and seizure data demonstrate the importance of that traffic:
Figueroa said that from October 1997 to the beginning of this month --
not counting the seizures revealed Monday -- Customs caught 17 Haitian
ships from which it seized 10,371 pounds of cocaine, $2.4 million, 99
illegal aliens and 32 drug smugglers. Those seizures and the latest ones
appear to solve a maritime mystery. Investigators have wondered for a
long time how Haitian ships can motor over here ostensibly empty, stand
idle for as long as a month while taking cargo on a little
at a time, and pay for fuel, crew wages, dock fees and other expenses
without their owners going broke.
''We suspect the only way these vessels make their trips pay off is by
smuggling drugs,'' Figueroa said. ''If you count drug smuggling profits,
legitimate profit margins become irrelevant. That's why Customs is
taking a very close look at all vessels on the Miami River that sail to
Haiti. We plan on doing as much as humanly possible to disrupt that
situation.'' Hardrick Crawford, in charge of FBI narcotics squads, said
a pending federal indictment will describe ''a conspiracy to smuggle
vast quantities of cocaine from Haiti to the United States.'' Crawford
said the indictment will name a Haitian woman, Fouana Jaen-Louis, who
agents believe is responsible for a lot of that trade. An investigation
leading up to Monday's news involved several agencies -- Customs, FBI,
Drug Enforcement Administration, Coast Guard, Broward County
Sheriff's Office, Miami and North Miami city police and Miami-Dade
County police. The Miami-Dade medical examiner's office provided a
forensic photographer to document the evidence, and the Florida National
Guard sent soldiers to help unload the contraband.
NINE SHIPS CHECKED
Investigators were sure a lot of cocaine from Colombia was being
transferred in Haiti to ships like the Hardness, but did not know much
about specific shipments. Beginning Jan. 29, they checked out nine ships
at sea, docked on the river or in drydock. No contraband was found on
the first one. The next was Hardness, a 170-footer. Customs official
Figueroa said 104 pounds of cocaine was removed the first day, but
agents left the rest in the ship until Monday, when they could cut open
the keel. In the next nine days, they reported 524 pounds found on
Caribbean Seahorse, 846 pounds on Rio Star and 541 pounds on Croyance.
Agents at the shipyard Monday said they discovered cocaine in keels and
other spaces by drilling holes in the decks and inserting probes -- a
standard method of detection. Those decks were mainly in engine rooms
and other locations with little working space, so the ships were hauled
into drydock and opened from the outside with cutting torches. The
hollow keel of Hardness is about 15 inches across at its widest spot.