Drug Trafficking through the State of Florida
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, most illegal drugs entering the United States come through Mexico and over the Texan border.1 While that may never change, the War on Drugs continues to rage on multiple fronts, and one of them is through the Sunshine State. Pop culture icons like Miami Vice and Scarface drew national (and global) attention to drug trafficking through the state of Florida, an industry that has only grown and flourished with the southern United States border becoming more heavily patrolled.
From Colombia to the Caribbean
A March 2015 report from Business Insider about a $2 million cocaine shipment apprehended in Fort Lauderdale points to a “growing drug hotspot”: Guayaquil in El Salvador, which has become a staging point for Peruvian and Columbian cartels looking for new routes to export their products to the biggest drug-consuming country in the world. Ninety percent of the cocaine that enters the United States comes through the Central American bottleneck, with Mexico as the cork; for the other 10 percent, the coastal access of Florida is a veritable open door.2
The Sun-Sentinel quoted a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that disclosed a 483 percent increase in cocaine arriving in Florida from 2012 to 2013. Marijuana seizures in 2013 were more than double those in 2012, accounting for 26,823 pounds of cannabis (and 12,876 pounds of cocaine).
The U.S. State Department pointed at smugglers emanating from Colombia, who send the drugs to the Caribbean islands, where the cocaine is split into smaller consignments that hide among the legitimate maritime traffic that moves between the Bahamas and the Floridian coast.3
In March 2016, a couple walking on a beach in Martin County found 44 pounds of cocaine washed ashore, which has a street value of over $2 million. The county sheriff told the media that the presence of that significant an amount of cocaine simply drifting in the water indicated that “major amounts of coke are still coming to South Florida” via trafficking routes that have not altered their delivery paths.4
The History of Drug Trafficking Through Florida
In 2015, the US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida (who represents the federal government in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida) and other high-ranking American officials met with the president of Colombia, in an effort to counter the operations of South American drug cartels trafficking drugs through the state.
The collaboration led to the indictments and arrests of 17 members of Los Urabenos (“Those from Uraba”), the most powerful drug smuggling neo-paramilitary group operating in Colombia. The leader of the group, Dario Antonio Usuga, remains at large; the State Department has issued a $5 million reward for his capture.
The Miami Herald opines that if the past is any indication, the hunt for Usuga will never end; not because Usuga himself will avoid capture, but regardless of his survival, incarceration, or death, another leader will replace him in Los Urabenos, and another group or cartel will replace Los Urabenos – with much bloodshed.5
Such was the case during the 1970s and 1980s, when South American gangs made Miami their base of operations, both to sell drugs and kill rival organizations (activities that Miami Vice dramatized). The infamous Pablo Escobar – the so-called “King of Cocaine,” who was responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States – organized trafficking shipments, routes, and distribution networks in South Florida. He used the island of Norman’s Cay, 200 miles southeast of the Florida coast, as an intermediate point.6
Escobar even owned a mansion in Florida, eventually seized by the US government in 1987. In 2014, the property was bought from a private owner for $9.65 million.7
The Cocaine Godmother and the Cali Cartel
Escobar himself stepped into the void created by the assassination of Griselda Blanco, the “Cocaine Godmother” who pioneered the drug trade in Miami. On the run from Colombian authorities, Blanco settled in Florida and launched a cocaine ring so violent, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration created a taskforce to stop her. It is estimated that Blanco ordered the deaths of 250 people during her reign of terror.
Eventually, Blanco’s brutality forced her to go into hiding. She was arrested by the DEA in California in 1985, deported to Colombia in 2004, and shot to death in 2012.8
Griselda Blanco started the Miami Drug Wars; Pablo Escobar became famous for it; and then came the Cali Cartel, founded by brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. The Cali Cartel made extensive use of the networks left to them by Escobar and his own cartel, employing them with such efficiency that the Cali Cartel was compared to Russia’s KGB and even the DEA, coming to be known as the biggest drug trafficking organization in the world.
At its peak, the Cali Cartel controlled more than 80 percent of the global cocaine trade that made over $7 billion a year. The US Justice Department called it “the most successful and prolific criminal enterprise in history,” but it was the Cali Cartel’s operations in Florida that led to their downfall.9
In July 1990, US Customs and a Special Forces Unit of the US Army arrested Jorge Alberto Rodriguez, the head of a secret cell of the Cali Cartel, as he tried to import 100 kilograms of cocaine into the United States through Tallahassee, Florida. The following year, another cocaine shipment – this one through Miami, of 12,000 kilograms – was also intercepted, leading to more arrests and the gradual tightening of the noose around the Cali Cartel’s operations.
In 2006, after years of desperately trying to avoid extradition to the United States, brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela were brought to America to face trial – in Miami. They pleaded guilty to charges of trying to import cocaine into the United States, forfeited $2.1 billion in assets, and are currently serving 30-year prison sentences.10
However, the CNN article announcing the US declaration of victory over the Cali Cartel notes that the group has been replaced by other organizations, a point echoed by the Miami Herald.
New Drugs for a New Generation
But in the same way that the cartels and drug lords trafficking drugs to Florida are inevitably replaced, even cocaine no longer holds the monopolistic sway that it once used to. Reuters warns of the synthetic drug “flakka,” a cheap synthetic stimulant cooked up in underground laboratories in China, sold on the Internet, and then delivered in the mail.11
Flakka is more formally known as alpha-PVP, originally created in the 1960s. It first came on the radar of authorities in 2014, when Broward County reported 190 cases of people requiring hospitalization for flakka. By May 2015, 275 cases had been logged.
Speaking to Reuters, a longtime narcotics officer with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office commented that flakka had dethroned cocaine in Florida. But instead of the traditional Colombian-Caribbean route of cocaine, flakka makes use of a modern-day method.
The Washington Post says it’s as easy as a Google search. That’s because the people who put the “design” in “designer drugs” – of which flakka is one – constantly tweak their formulas to stay ahead of the authorities in the United States. Every time the DEA (or another national or global law enforcement agency) bans one strain of alpha-PVP, the manufacturers who own the Chinese (or Eastern European) laboratories give orders for their chemists to alter the pharmacological makeup of the product. No time is lost, either, since designer drugs can be made quickly, easily, and cheaply.
Technically Not Illegal
The new concoction might still go by the name flakka, but it is “technically not illegal”; its chemical components are different enough from the just-banned substance that they can be legally marketed and purchased in the United States, before the government is able to make the legal case for their criminalization.12
A drug abuse epidemiologist at Fort Lauderdale’s Nova Southeastern University told the Post that some companies even guarantee their customers a replacement package if the first delivery is seized by the authorities.
Of course, US Customs and Border Protection still have a lot of leeway to search a suspicious package, even if the laws are still being written; but the organizations that produce and distribute flakka simply give their packages the most innocuous of names, using words like shampoo, cleaner, and industrial solvent to transport the drugs: small, clear crystals that can be chewed or smoked.
The organizations behind the manufacturing of flakka operate out of clandestine labs in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, near the Hong Kong border. That region also has a long history creating traditional Chinese medicine, and some of the natural ingredients found in alternative medicine products are also produced in synthetic substances like flakka.13
A detective in Broward County estimated that there are thousands of such labs in China, and lax Chinese exportation laws – as well as rampant corruption – make life for American law enforcement officials very difficult.14
Florida’s Flakka Problem
Needless to say, they also make life very dangerous for American consumers. In explaining why flakka is more dangerous than cocaine, CNN lists the effects of the “excited delirium” that come when someone injects, swallows, or snorts flakka:
- Violent behavior
- Dramatic spikes in body temperature (105 degrees and higher)
- Feelings of extreme strength
In South Florida, a man broke down hurricane-proof doors on a police station, and later confessed to having taken flakka. In Melbourne, Florida, a girl on a flakka high screamed that she was Satan while running down a street. The drug epidemiologist who spoke to the Washington Post also told CNN that for some unknown reason, Florida appears to be a focal point for flakka abuse (although there are theories). As of May 2015, Broward County in South Florida saw three or four hospitalizations a day because of flakka, a statistic that baffled the community.15
Perhaps one reason is because of South Florida’s long history with drug trafficking. The South China Morning Post writes of how Hong Kong triads are selling methamphetamine to Mexican cartels. The Mexican government confirmed that criminal organizations in China – the largest meth-producing country in the world – have supplied precursor chemicals to the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful drug smuggling organization in the world, to penetrate “the insatiable American market.”16
The implications of criminal elements from China and Mexico coming together to flood the United States with dangerous and deadly drugs were enough for law enforcement officials from Broward County to visit China to discuss the issue. The result of their trip was the Chinese government banning the production of flakka and 115 other chemical substances used in the synthesis of designer drugs. The American officials were also able to convince Chinese authorities to tighten exportation laws on chemical substances. Describing how South Florida was “ground zero” for the flakka epidemic (where more than 40 people had died as a result of taking the drug), a DEA spokeswoman noted that cutting off the supply of alpha-PVP at the source – “China was a major supplier,” she told the Sun-Sentinel – would put a dent in the trafficking of flakka to the US.
A Fort Lauderdale detective and DEA task force officer commented that the Chinese government did not want to be known as a “source country” like Colombia was for cocaine to Florida.17
However, the acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami sounded a note of warning: “I don’t think [designer drug trafficking] is going to stop,” he says. The pessimism is reminiscent of the cycle of drug lords and cartel bosses replacing each other, a new menace washing up on South Florida’s shores with each passing decade.
The Pill Mill Problem
Florida has not been immune to the heroin epidemic sweeping across the country, and drug traffickers have made the most of the wave. In February 2016, law enforcement moved against a heroin trafficking ring in Orange County that sold over 2 pounds of heroin every week near a popular tourist area. It was the third drug bust since December 2015, following 90 heroin-related deaths across Orange and Osceola Counties (and three fatalities in 24 hours in a single apartment complex in West Orange County). The DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge told the Orlando Sentinel that the group responsible for the ring originated in Mexico, crossed the border into California, and then headed across the country to Florida.
The group moved in after the state closed down doctors’ offices that were nothing more than “pill mills,” illegal operations that hand out prescription painkillers to patients without proper prescriptions or authorization. Local law enforcement made over 600 heroin seizures in 2014, with deaths related to heroin rising by 84 percent in a 12-month span between 2013 and 2014.
The Tampa Tribune writes that Florida used to be known as the “pill mill capital” of the United States, home to 93 of the top 100 doctors in the country who would hand out oxycodone – intended to be used for the treatment of intense, short-term pain – like it was candy. The ease of access was widespread across the state, attracting pill users from other states that had tougher laws.
Florida and Big Pharmaceuticals
How lax were Florida’s laws? In 2010, prescription drug manufacturers shipped more than 650 million oxycodone pills to the state, which equates to over 34 pills for every single Floridian. In that same year, 1,516 people died as a result of oxycodone overdoses, more than any other drug.18
Such are the numbers that the Huffington Post wondered if the pharmaceutical industry is out to rob senior citizens or disabled people, since three of the top eight cities with the most number of retirees are in Florida; and senior citizens, with their aging bodies and minds, constitute an at-risk population that monopolistic pharmaceutical companies and unscrupulous traffickers can make a lot of money off: $711 billion, according to the Post.19, 20
After the DEA put “Operation Pill Nation” into effect, applying laws against street drugs to go after the pill mill doctors, 2011 was a better year for Florida; operations were closed, doctors were sentenced and jailed, and the Florida state legislature passed new laws that prohibited doctors from prescribing the most troublesome pills. Furthermore, doctors who over-prescribed medication were penalized, and pharmacists had to log prescriptions into a statewide database supervised by the Department of Health.
This had the effect of lowering the number of oxycodone pills shipped to Florida every subsequent year since the changes. The DEA provided data that showed the 2013 figure for oxycodone pills was 313 million, less than half the number sent to Florida just three years earlier.
A Little Stumped
But parts of Florida are still struggling with a demand for heroin. Manatee County had as many as 14.99 deaths per 100,000 residents due to heroin and fentanyl, an opioid painkiller that is given to patients with such severe levels of pain that other painkillers cannot treat. The DEA says that fentanyl is far more powerful than heroin, classifying it as a Schedule II controlled substance.21
In 50 days – January 1st to February 20th, 2016 – there were 75 heroin overdoses reported by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Eight of the cases resulted in the death of the user.22
The chief clinical officer for an addiction and mental health treatment facility in Bradenton admitted to being “a little stumped,” and wondered if clamping down on the pill mills left a void that smugglers and traffickers were more than happy (and able) to fill.
The sheriff for Manatee County told the Bradenton Herald that there was nothing he could do but hope that his department would be able to home in on suppliers and suffocate the heroin trade in Florida.23
Until that happens, however, the story of drug trafficking through Florida will continue.