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#3657: Tattered Haitian boats taunt U.S. anti-drug agents (fwd)


WIRE:05/16/2000 14:05:00 ET
 Tattered Haitian boats taunt U.S. anti-drug agents on Miami River     

 The decrepit freighters carry disheveled piles of old tires, bicycles
and mattresses _cargo for the return trip to  Haiti. Used cars line some
decks.Yet what tantalizes the U.S. Customs Service agents patrolling 
the Miami River is what they can't see. Secreted inside incoming  boats,
they have found cocaine, lots of it. And they've discovered  millions of
hidden dollars, presumed to be the outbound fruits of  the cocaine
trade. A narrow 5{-mile-long ribbon that bisects downtown Miami, the 
river has become the main U.S. entry point for drug runners from  Haiti,
a crossroads for Colombian cocaine that is only 600 miles from
Miami.Nearly all the small freighters plying the brackish waters are 
from the desperately poor nation, with some also carrying illegal 
migrants into the United States and guns going out.  In a two-week
stretch in February, agents seized some 3,400  pounds of cocaine from
five Haitian vessels on the river, an  above-average haul. All told,
cocaine seized from Haitian freighters on the Miami River accounted for
more than 90 percent of the 5,600  pounds of cocaine caught since last
October going into the United States from Haiti.  This is the hot spot,"
says Bobby Rutherford, a group supervisor for the U.S. Customs Service
office in Miami, who's been  policing the Miami River for a decade.
"We're the point of least  resistance and we're getting flooded."  One
reason: It's much cheaper for the Haitian ships,just 150 to  200 feet
long, to dock on the river than at conventional seaports  operated by
union workers, where fees are higher.  Some crew members have ties to
South Florida's 150,000-person  Haitian community. But Leonie Hermantin,
executive director of  Miami's Haitian American Foundation, says
community leaders are too  preoccupied by local woes such as poverty and
increasing drug use  by young people to consider the problems on the
river.  Violence is a byproduct of the drug trade on the river.
Rutherford cites the 1997 murder of five Haitian crew members  aboard
the Vanderpool Express, in which police suspected drugs as the motive. 
The boats are targets for what agents call "river pirates" _ small bands
of thugs seeking hidden cocaine. In one case,Rutherford recounts, they
burned some of the crew's backs with blow  torches then used the torches
to cut through metal compartments  holding drugs.  
 On a recent breezy day, small-craft warnings for the Miami area  have
no bearing on this waterway, which  seems more like a canal  than a
river, with walls of  cargo ships crowding each side:Cristina Express,
Ray of Hope, Realist, Pepe, Jenny Cay, God is  Able,Flora, Flamingo
Express. Five or six new ones arrive each  day.Nearly all of them make
the three-day trip from Haiti with no  cargo _ a giveaway, law
enforcement agents say, that their mission  is often illicit, not
commercial.  The vessels appear puny compared with the container      
ships from  Central and South America and the towering cruise liners
putting in  at the nearby Port of Miami.  A day earlier, customs agents
made another seizure,143 pounds  of cocaine from the Sea Hoss. The boat
was also seized, something  that is legally possible only when the
agents can show the captain  or owner was aware of the illicit cargo.  
The latest hiding place of the Haitian smugglers:compartments  built
inside the keel, the ridge running along the bottom of a boat  to keep
it upright and stable. Customs agents have had to drill  through the  
heavy metal structures with blow torches to get at the drugs.        
How do they know where the drugs are?  Frank Figueroa, special agent in
charge of Customs' Miami  regional office, wouldn't elaborate beyond    
citing "intelligence  information," which generally  refers to data
coming from tip-offs,informants or surveillance. Seizures vary with the
number of Haitian boats on the river and the quality of the -+
intelligence the  agents receive.  By scrutinizing law enforcement
techniques, Haitian smugglers find new hiding places. This makes ship
inspections more  time-consuming and expensive _each one costs up to
$90,000 _ and  likely helps account for the 24 percent growth in Haiti's
cocaine shipments to the United States, to 74 tons last year          
from 59 tons in 1998.In recent months, agents also have discovered wads
of cash  secreted in Haitian vessels on the river. Since the dollars
are  bound for Haiti, the seizures raise suspicions drug money is 
laundered there."On a scale of possibility from one to 10, I'd give it a
six or  a seven, based on what we've actually seen going outbound," 
Figueroa said. Because Haitian freighters on the Miami River are     
registered in countries such as Honduras, Panama or Belize, it's hard to
trace ownership after they're seized. Owners rarely come forward to 
contest the seizures. Shipping company agents,often paid in cash,    
frequently have only a pager number for the vessel's owner, no name.   
Compounding the problem, seized Haitian boats that are sold in  U.S.
government auctions sometimes end up again in unscrupulous hands.The
Croyance, for example, was seized on the river in February after agents
found 540 pounds of cocaine hidden inside. They soon  made another
discovery: the ship already had been taken and sold at auction in late
1998 after 485 pounds of the drug were found.