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#2401: Drug Smugglers Adapt to Difficulties (fwd)


Thursday February 17 5:38 PM ET 
 Drug Smugglers Adapt to Difficulties
  By ALEX VEIGA Associated Press Writer 

 MIAMI (AP) - Smugglers have been moving increasingly large amounts of
cocaine into Florida by way of Haiti, employing hiding places so
ingenious that federal agents have had to drill into the keels of
freighters to find the drugs.This month alone, agents seized more than a
ton of cocaine stashed inside false compartments aboard several
freighters from Haiti. They found an additional 160 pounds of the drug
hidden inside barrels of butter aboard a commercial flight that arrived
in Miami.`This particular incident of uncovering cocaine in the keel
will force the organizations to come up with a new way to bring it in,''
said Frank Figueroa, lead investigator at the Customs Service office in
Miami. In the ``Miami Vice'' days of the 1980s, Colombian drug lords
brought their cargo to Florida shores on fast boats or dropped it from
low-flying planes. When federal agents caught on, the smugglers started
shipping cocaine through Mexico. Then when agents cracked down on that
route, smugglers adapted yet again and began moving the drugs through
Haiti. Ten to 15 years ago, marijuana and illegal immigrants were the
main illicit cargo from Haiti, an island nation 600 miles southeast of
Miami. Figueroa said agents noticed an increase in cocaine shipments
from Haiti in the past four to five years. They were often brought by
``mules,'' people hired to hide a few pounds of cocaine on them or in
their luggage. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates 12
percent of the illegal drugs smuggled into the United States comes
through Haiti. But that figure may be on the rise. Between October 1997
and September 1998, U.S. investigators seized 7,005 pounds of cocaine
aboard Haitian vessels. The amount dropped to 2,063 pounds the next
year, but in the past five months, Customs has already seized 4,983
pounds of cocaine. More than 3,000 pounds of that total - with a street
value of about $25 million - was found this month, hidden in the keels
of five vessels docked along the Miami River. The drugs were hidden in
tiny false compartments, below floor panels, inside tanks filled with
water or fuel, and within the bilge areas, the sections between the hull
 and the floor where waste accumulates. Such compartments are often
impossible to get at from the inner deck. Officials searching for
contraband are faced with cutting through several inches of flooring,
 or the costly option of putting the vessels in dry dock and drilling
holes in the keel. Customs agents employed that tactic this month. After
they began pulling out drill bits sprinkled with cocaine, investigators
cut through the thick metal section of the ships and found more than a
ton of cocaine. Officials are also finding more drug proceeds being
smuggled out of the United States en route to the drug kingpins. Customs
agents recently found a little over $1 million aboard a freighter
carrying junk. The cash was inside brand-new toolboxes on the deck in
plain view. According to a State Department report last year: ``Efforts
by the government of Haiti to investigate, arrest, prosecute or convict
members of international drug trafficking organizations were lacking.''
 Justice Department officials blame several factors: a political impasse
between Haiti's branches of government, widespread corruption, a
dysfunctional judicial system, pervasive poverty and police
inexperience. The Drug Enforcement Administration has seven agents in
Haiti, but they do not have the authority to make arrests or conduct
investigations. All they can do is advise local authorities and exchange
information, spokesman Brent Eaton said. The two main routes for the
shipment of cocaine are either directly from Colombia to Haiti or via
Panama. Large shipments are delivered mainly to Haiti's southern
 coast by fast boats, cargo freighters or air drops.``The success that
we've had in Mexico has ballooned somewhat the impact on of what has
come through the Caribbean,'' said Bob Weiner, a spokesman for White
 House drug czar Barry McCaffrey. ``It's still a very serious