This is Chapter Seven – “The Islands” – of “The Nine Nations of North America” by Joel Garreau, as published by Houghton Mifflin in May, 1981.
“New Stuff” regarding Nine Nations can be found at http://garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=3
ABOUT THREE MILES into the heart of the city, but at a point where the Miami River is still wide enough for a small ocean freighter to just squeeze through, the denizens of the Gunkhole were trying to figure out why the Coast Guard was on their case.
The officers had been through earlier that day, rapping on hulls, waking people up well before noon. The twenty-fourth of the month, they kept repeating. The twenty-fourth. They wanted to make sure everybody knew, because they were coming back then, and with extreme prejudice.
The river rat lounged in his bathrobe near the newest blowout patch on the deck of his fiber-glass twenty-eight-footer. It was now near sundown, the hour that, along the river, made the sober acutely aware of their condition, setting them off in search of a cure. Near a banyan tree, one of the ubiquitous rusting fifty-five-gallon drums bore empties of the universal solvents: Myers's Rum, Beck's Beer, Tropicana Orange Juice, and 80 W 90 gear oil.
The river rat was the one who had christened with the name Gunkhole the largely commercial anchorage in which he and his cohorts lived on their boats. Actually, what he'd said was that there were two ways to go with boats: Merrill Stevens and Gunkhole, and this wasn't Merrill Stevens.
Merrill Stevens is a drydock and anchorage at the southern edge of Miami, on Dinner Key, in Coconut Grove. Its view is of Key Biscayne, the superwealthy island to which Richard Nixon used to retreat with his pal Bebe Rebozo. Merrill Stevens' customers wear starched whites, own "yachts," not "boats," and hire cleaning ladies for them while they are in port. The sterns bear the names of cities from Montreal to Panama. Merrill Stevens believes in hulls with many layers of fine lacquer, accented with metallic gold pinstripes. It does fine work. Its customers do little at all.
The Gunkhole, by contrast, is very different, but just as much Miami. Halfway between downtown and the airport, it's a somewhat trashed oasis. The Miami "River" is actually more of a crooked canal. It's lined with docked craft ranging from cabin cruisers to rustbuckets over a hundred feet long that haul, between islands, TV dinners or whatever. The open water between hulls on one side and hulls on the other, in fact, is less wide than a swimming pool is long.
It's nonetheless been so repeatedly dredged that, as you sit under the Gunkhole's banyan, in a salvaged leather seat from a ship's cockpit, amid the dead batteries and crapped-out motor-cycles, sipping beer, you can look out and see what appears to be the penthouse of a small apartment building drifting past, towering over the palms. It's actually a cargo ship improbably heading upriver, guided by two tugs being careful, very careful, not to scrape somebody's paint job.
Though the Gunkhole is hardly the antiseptic world of Dinner Key, there is little purposeless junk around it. A rusting pile of steel is being miraculously transformed into a fifty-eight-foot sailboat. A young blond Viking who barely speaks English is working with an acetylene torch, great precision, and the help only of a grizzled old man, to produce the hull's graceful curves, angling flat piece of metal to flat piece of metal.
Under a kerosene lamp, the woodworking "shop" of the aforementioned river rat stands on the bank, covered only by some sheets of plastic and a few lizards. Power cords off a jerry-rigged patch box lead to a jigsaw and a grinding wheel, next to a paintbrush and a can of epoxy. An old dory that's been painstakingly sanded down and caulked lies upside down on some logs. Shorn of its paint flakes and marine growths, the boat's timber shows its fine grain. Examined closely, this utilitarian cork is something of a work of art. Tiny white flowers bloom nearby.
Overhead, planes with exotic markings scream in low, drowning out the conversation, as they do all over Miami. The sport in the Gunkhole is to attempt to determine their cargo and origin by their sound and looks. Engines protesting their need of a tune-up as they angle their craft into the glide path are assumed to be from islands where the fine points of twentieth-century technology are considered optional. Ditto jets that, while over a populated area, jettison excess fuel so that their wings won't break off on landing. The airways of the islands continue to harbor virtually every make of commercial aircraft ever built, no matter what its age. A Super Constellation, the triple-tailed prop job made obsolete by the first 707s, rumbles by, its nose at an odd angle to the runway. Nobody believes that anything legal is carted in the hold of the unmarked DC-3 that follows.
A Coast Guard environmental inspection? asked the pirate in cutoffs from the sloop docked nearby in the Gunkhole. He watched the soap suds trickle illicitly into the river from the open-air shower on the bank. Use of the shower constitutes indecent exposure. But more to the point, the soap pollution is the kind of thing the Coast Guard seemed to be upset about.
Any kind of law enforcement in the Gunkhole was considered a marvel. The evening was full of idle curiosity about what, exactly, moved the Coast Guard to attempt to tighten up on the laws against flushing toilets into the water.
Maybe it was the snake drills. Maybe that's what got to them. From time to time, it seemed right to throw a length of hose into the river, yell "Snake!" and everybody open up with shotguns, Magnums, semiautomatic weapons, whatever was handy on the boats. Apart from being fun, it established that the Gunkhole was heavily armed and crazy, which was all to the good. You wound up being able to leave your tools out on deck and go for a beer and come back, and nobody had messed with your stuff.
Maybe it was the dope. But no. For one thing, drug-smuggling is South Florida's number one industry - ahead of tourism. It would be preposterous to think of a pollution check as the pretext for a bust. "Fishing" boats whose nets had obviously never touched water plied the river all the time. It would take at least the Navy to put even a dent in the traffic. Besides, it was no big secret that the Gunkhole had no reason to be holding cargo. The multimillion-dollar shipments of marijuana bales were off-loaded at the seafood store up the way.
Maybe it was the 220-volt line to the radio's illegal linear amplifier that had brought the Coast Guard. That idea aroused great jocularity. When that radio was fired up, they explained, lights dimmed all over Miami, television along the river displayed un-seasonable snow, and you could ship-to-shore with Colombia. But the antenna had been broken for several weeks. No, that couldn't have been it.
The pirate allowed as how he thought he would just pull out to sea until this inspection nonsense blew over. The IRS and he had failed to communicate for some time now, and he saw no reason to risk his streak of luck by talking to the Coast Guard. Not about anything.
Unfortunately, there was a problem with that. It would lead to a hassle with the damn state of Florida, since the boat, which he'd built from scratch, suffered from an utter lack of title, registration, running numbers, tax payments, and so forth. The river rat in the bathrobe thought he'd hang around. He was fairly sure that he could find something more current than the expired registration sticker displayed on the bow.
Besides. There was a bright side to all this, he said. If you put five gallons of crankcase oil into the bilge of the neighbor's tugboat and got it pumping out just as the cutter hove into view, the Coast Guard would take one look at the slick on the water and hit the tug's captain with at least a $5000 fine.
The Coast Guard just can't take a joke about oil slicks, pointed out the river rat, warming to his idea. They'd lead that old bastard away in handcuffs. Probably impound the boat. Serve him right, just for the time he steered two hundred feet of concrete-post-laden barge through a yacht basin up by Hollywood. Get him out of the water once and for all.
I've been waiting for a chance like this, said the river rat. I've been patient too. And that's the answer right there. Five gallons of black oil on the twenty-fourth.
Between jets, the noise of the city streets that surround the Gunkhole could barely be heard. The anchorage is almost totally separated from that world by land, difficult to find, accessible only via twisted gravel back alleys, lushly shaded by tropical foliage, opening up only at the very end to the clearing, where a square-nosed barge had, improbably, been made over into somebody's idea of living quarters.
I think I know why the Coast Guard is prowling around here looking for cracked toilet seats, mused the pirate. I think it's really pretty simple. I think they're just trying to figure out what the hell they've got on their hands here.
The first railroad didn't discover what it had on its hands in Miami - that "tangled mass of vine, brush, trees and rock," as the site on which it was to grow was then described - until the turn of this century. That was decades after the rails had reached California, at a time when Frederick Jackson Turner was prematurely declaring the end of the North American frontier. It was almost four hundred years after the Spanish discovered Florida, only to decide that it apparently hadn't been worth the bother.
The railroad was built by a former partner of John D. Rockefeller, one Henry M. Flagler. His vision was to offer one of the few places on the mainland decidedly below the frost belt to the leisured wealthy with whom he was accustomed to associate. As regionalist Neal Pierce notes, he had already "made" Palm Beach to the north, with a sumptuous new hotel, The Breakers. In a kind of winter Newport, private railway cars of the ultrarich crowded the Palm Beach sidings, and large private "cottages" clustered near the hotel. "In the evenings," historian Marjory Douglas recorded, "the music from the hotel ballroom mingled with the rustling of palm fronds, glittering in moonlight, and the winds of the sea."
The only hitch with Palm Beach was that it still was not reliably Caribbean enough to guarantee the rich a permanent haven from the cold. So Flagler built farther south, ultimately pushing his railroad even past Miami, out into the water. Seven hundred men died laying steel, island by island, until "Flagler's Folly" got to Key West in 1913. Flagler's next stop, literally, was Havana, and for a while a car ferry plied between Key West and Havana. But he wanted to build a railroad bridge to the Cuban capital, a goal the state of Florida actually began to implement in 1934. This plan might have had an awesome effect on the region's twentieth-century history, had it not been for the hurricane of '35, which wiped out forty-one miles of railroad track and trestle and forced the abandonment of the Havana bridge.
It's important to note Flagler's dream, because it was the first of the many that have washed over South Florida in waves, each different, each ultimately receding, but each leaving its mark at the high-water line.
Every one of those dreams continues to exist here intact - un-assimilated - captured by the promise of the sun. Because they are dreams - visions of a kind of perfection leaving old problems behind - they do everything they can to ignore each other.
The yachted aristocrats, in their dream, had not envisioned an invasion of pensioners wishing to live cheap where the slush does not grow. The white-haired from a homogeneously Anglo-German Great Plains, meanwhile, were rather taken aback that large numbers of blacks and some crackers, as they are still locally called, considered Florida an extension of Dixie. The crackers and blacks were amazed that the Mafia considered South Florida a vacation spa, meeting place, retirement goal, and place to invest their ill-gotten gains in legitimate business. Then the Mob found itself in the midst of a cultural, economical, demographic, and political island on the land, transformed by "a piece of Manhattan which floated 1,000 miles to the south, warmed by the waters of the Gulf Stream," as one professor put it. Miami had become a dream to northeastern Jews, too.
What these dreams have had in common is that they belonged to the inhabitants of the mainland. Miami looked in one direction for its future. North. Real estate and tourism were the driving force of the economy, the source of riches. The money that came in, came in from the cold.
Despite their considerable differences, the newcomers shared a certain background so fundamental that they took it for granted. They all spoke English, for one thing, and they acknowledged certain continental Anglo ideas, not the least of which was that this was a white man's world.
This is why the geographic reorientation that South Florida has undergone in the last decade has been the most sweeping of any not caused by war in North American history. The economy and culture have turned completely around, and are now facing due south. They now look to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela - even Argentina - for their future. As Liberty City rioting showed in 1980, black dreams have been dashed. Anglo dreams, though still alive, have become a little irrelevant.
"Jaime Roldos, the then-president-elect of Ecuador, said it best at the trade fair here in 'seventy-nine," said Maurice Ferré, who ought to know, he being the mayor of Miami. "He made a beautiful speech and then the key line was 'Miami has now become the capital of Latin America.' "
In 1959, Fidel Castro altered the history of North America in a way he undoubtedly hadn't intended. When he stepped out of the Sierra Maestra and into power, Cuba was one of the wealthiest islands in the Caribbean, as well as the largest. Unfortunately, it was also only marginally sovereign - an economic colony of the United States. There were gross inequities in the distribution of income. The Batista regime Castro overthrew was corrupt. Havana had become an anything-goes playground for foreigners in which prostitution, gambling, and vice flourished. And the large underclass suffered from vast gaps in education and health care. In the course of attacking these problems, however, Castro discarded civil liberties and democratic reforms as bourgeois baggage. Property not only of the oligarchy but of the middle class was seized; class consciousness turning the poor against the well-off was encouraged; and, ultimately, enemies of the regime and their families were threatened, imprisoned, and killed.
The result was refugees. Hundreds of thousands of them, fleeing by boat and airplane, from repression. But these refugees of the sixties were different from most who had arrived on the North American mainland; they assumed that they would soon be returning home. They were not refugees, but exiles. It was clear to them that the Castro regime was a temporary, if not inexplicable, aberration; it would soon fail under the burdens of its own contradictions. The masses would rise and overthrow him.
So first they settled nearby, and South Florida is the nearest-by to Havana there is. Second, because they viewed Florida as a temporary refuge, they made no excessive effort to integrate themselves into the existing social structure. (To this day, Cubans do not participate as vigorously in Miami elections as they could because many still have not applied for United States citizenship. That would be to concede that they're never going home.) And third, they plotted.
They plotted compulsively, and with the skill peculiar to their circumstances. The Cubans who left the island, understandably enough, were those who stood to lose the most by staying.
Doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers - professionals of all kinds who were less than enthusiastic about being forced into the fields to hack away at the sugar cane - made up an extraordinary proportion of the exiles. As Ferré has said, an entire class - an entire nation - was uprooted from Cuba and dropped into Miami. Neurosurgeons who did not speak English took jobs in Florida hospitals changing bedpans. Distinguished jurists whose training was useless in a legal system totally different from the one they knew loaded bundles of the Miami Herald onto trucks. And they learned about the dark side of power. With the highest patriotic motives, they turned to the small clique in their midst accustomed to clandestine activities - the irate mobsters of Havana who had also skedaddled at their first opportunity - to raise money, purchase arms, train cadres. Small boats began to run raids, shelling coastal oil and sugar refineries. Guerrillas were secretly landed in Cuba to attempt the counterrevolution.
Men disappeared from Miami for months at a time. Later it would be discovered that they had been on huge, isolated Central American ranches, conducting maneuvers, training for the Bay of Pigs.
The Cubans' new environment was totally supportive of this underground. Not only was the Miami Mafia on cordial terms with their cousins who had run the lucrative Havana casinos and brothels, but Washington egged them on. The new young president of the United States who would soon organize the Green Berets was eager to explore new methods of dealing with insurgencies. The Central Intelligence Agency was delighted to help organize a small war against communism. These troops were motivated.
It will doubtless never be known exactly how much this unholy alliance changed the course of history. But conspiracy theorists, for example, are convinced that John Kennedy would be alive today, a graying elder statesman in his sixties, had it never existed. Castro, they say, enraged at the repeated clandestine attempts on his life ordered by the CIA and subcontracted to the Mafia, was behind the assassination of Kennedy.
The one thing that can be said for certain is that Miami was transformed into the intrigue capital of the hemisphere, reinforcing the dissimilarity between South Florida and the mainland to which it was only physically attached - an island very much like Hong Kong.
Even now, although the Cuban community has become far more interested in legitimate enterprise than in retaking the island - has become middle class and more involved in prosperity than exotic poisons - the pattern of operation the CIA pioneered persists.
Secrecy punctuated by tall tales envelops aspect after aspect of Miami. A reporter attempting to get at a description of the internal workings of the place is tempted to throw up his hands. "Those that know don't say, and those that say don't know," I was repeatedly told, even about the affairs of publicly held multinational corporations whose Latin American operations are headquartered in Miami. And the tales one does hear are so hair-raising -the "snake drills" mentioned earlier are an excellent example - that one is tempted to write them off as macho b.s. baked too long in the sun.
Yet there are certain undeniable facts and sober estimates about the place:
- "There is an unusually large number of gun dealers here," says Bob Nunnery, special agent in charge of U.S. Customs operations here. "A lot of the trade is legitimate," but when Central and South American political operatives need equipment on the sly, "they tend to come here also." It's routine news - the papers don't make a big deal out of it anymore - when a Salvadorian diplomat is nailed smuggling high-powered weapons out of Miami, or a quarter of a million rounds of illegal ammunition is discovered stashed in a shipment of air conditioners. "There's a huge traffic in weapons," says Dave Tucker, director of the Treasury Department's local Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division. "You can triple your money by selling in Central and South America. We really just touch the surface of this."
- Companies like Focus Scientific and Electronics openly advertise as CIA equipment stuff ranging from infrared nightscopes to antibugging devices to phone scramblers.
- As many as nine deposed Central and South American heads of state have been counted living in the Miami area at one time. When Anastasio Somoza was ousted as the ruler of Nicaragua - and before he moved to Paraguay, where he was killed - Miami is where he, his henchmen, and his money fled.
- The Federal Reserve has noted that in 1979, an excess of 5.4 billion more untraceable cash dollars - much of it in $100 bills - arrived in Florida banks, from other parts of North America and the world, than left. The Fed assumes that this currency, which is an amount on the order of the United States balance-of-trade deficit in some of the 1970s, constitutes payoffs to the underground economy. California, which also has its share of tourism and crime, by comparison, showed no such surplus.
- Murders linked to the drug trade are averaging more than one a week in the Miami area.
- Plane crashes associated with attempts to fly in under coastal radar defenses, without lights, in order to land marijuana at isolated dirt airstrips, also without lights, have mounted to as high as one a day.
- When the Nixon administration went looking for talent to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate, it went to Miami and recruited CIA-trained Cubans.
- When DINA, the Chilean secret police, sent Michael Townley, a thirty-five-year-old North American Anglo, to murder Orlando Letelier, Townley also sought out militant Cubans to aid him in his scheme. Orlando Letelier was the former Chilean ambassador to the United States during the leftist Allende administration, which was overthrown by the CIA. The goal of the four Cubans, one of whom was the head of an outfit called the Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM), was to trade their involvement for permission to set up a government-in-exile in Chile under its present military dictatorship. Admittedly, these Cubans who helped bomb Letelier's car in the streets of downtown Washington were from the Cuban community in New Jersey, not Florida. But Armando Santana, the man who became head of CNM when its former leader went to prison over the Letelier murder, and who denies vigorously the FBI conclusion that he is also head of a terrorist group called Omega Seven, told CBS's "60 Minutes": "I'm not criticizing the old generation, but everything in history evolves. The new generation takes over, okay. That's common history. But the tactics of the old generation are concentrated on waiting for the green light from Washington, and waiting for the Marines to solve their problems; the CIA to solve their problems for them. And we don't believe the American government and its interests are ever going to concord with our interests. If we're going to wait for the Marines to liberate our nation, I'm going to be buried here in the United States."
But by the same token, the presence of half a million Cubans has transformed the legitimate business world of South Florida. The Wall StreetJournal coyly refers to the Cubans as the Phoenicians of the Caribbean. The only thing I ever heard them called in Miami was the Jews of the Caribbean, often by Cubans themselves and usually in an admiring tone.
(Digression: For some reason that I can't imagine, the Cubans seem to have become the first immigrant group in North America not to have acquired a derogatory nickname. Other immigrants have been known as wops, micks, canucks, greasers, chinks, whatever. The only way outsiders have discovered to register their disapproval of Cubans is to use the standard four-letter salute, in its participial adjective form, as in "those f***ing Cubans.")
At any rate, the Cuban economic miracle has been so great that the luring of pasty-fleshed tourists is no longer the number one industry in South Florida. (Drugs are number one.) Tourism is not even number two. Trade with the rest of the hemisphere is. Because Miami is now basically a Spanish-speaking community, multinationals have flocked to neighboring Coral Gables as the base of their Latin American operations. Latin American businessmen come to Miami to export northward their textiles, apparel, crafts, beef, and coffee. And the new middle class of the Americas comes to Miami to purchase consumer goods, ranging from videotape recorders to surfboards, that are either too expensive or unavailable in their own lands.
But although tourism is now number three, that's not because it hasn't burgeoned. Latinos have revolutionized that industry, also, opening up the hitherto-dead summer season to vibrant activity. J. C. Penney now even stocks fur coats in Miami in August to appeal to the tourists from south of the equator who arrive during their own winter.
Miami is the only place in the United States [says Mayor Ferré] that's going to escape major recessions, and the reason - you really have to be honest about it - goes back to two things: the drug cash flow that comes in and impacts the whole community. And number two, the increased centralization of trade, commerce, and banking in Miami toward the Caribbean and Central and South America. This is the place to do business. And so, you no longer go to New York like it used to be ten years ago.
Ten years ago, Miami was not a trade center. Why was it not a trade center ten years ago and why is it a trade center today? [asked Ferré, who is himself Puerto Rican and has a Latin habit of conducting an entire dialogue by answering his own questions].
The availability of a tremendous amount of money - most of which comes from drugs, but not all - and the availability of a tremendous Spanish-speaking infrastructure. Hospitals. Engineering firms. Real estate. Lawyers. Banks. You can go from the cradle to the grave and make a lot of money in-between in Miami. In Spanish.
South Florida has been opened up as an intersection of myriad worlds. While once tied to the land, at the mercy of whatever destiny wandered down the peninsula's railways and interstates, now its avenues of the future are the seas by which it's surrounded.
"You and I look out there," said one Key West lawyer, waving vaguely in the direction of Cuba, "and all we see is water. The Conchs [Key West natives] look out, and they see streets."
If South Florida itself has become an island - with three of the fastest-growing North American cities in it, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Palm Beach, it might even be called a fantasy island - its rightful place is in the nation of the Islands. And that nation properly begins at Jupiter Inlet.
Jupiter Inlet is a major cut in Florida's barrier islands that allows oceangoing craft to enter the shelter of the East's Intra-coastal Waterway. Just above Palm Beach, it is the northern end of South Florida's east coast - that wall of condominiums, hotels, and marinas that, shoulder to shoulder for over a hundred miles, make this strip of the Atlantic the most valuable per linear foot in the East, with the possible exception of Manhattan.
It is where the Gulf Stream makes its closest approach to the North American mainland - under ten miles. And it's where the climate changes. The Weather Bureau issues its forecast for South Florida "from Jupiter Inlet to the Dry Tortugas" (the islands out beyond Key West that Mr. Flagler's railroad didn't reach). Jupiter Inlet is the point where the balmy southerly winds of the Islands tend to give way to the more southeasterly winds, which yield the climate of Dixie.
Just east of Jupiter Inlet starts the first of the Islands' three chains. So thoroughly guarding southern Florida and Cuba from the Atlantic that the gaps between them are called "passages" - Crooked Island Passage, Mayaguana Passage, Silver Bank Passage - are the Bahamas. Almost three thousand islands, only about 1 percent of them inhabited, the Bahamas start so close to Florida (about fifty miles) that people waterski from point to point. In 1979, Diana Nyad swam the distance. Those fifty miles between Grand Bahama and the mainland is one of the longest distances between island steppingstones from Florida to Venezuela.
The Bahamas extend 760 miles straight southeast to the Dominican Republic. Smack in the middle, four hundred miles almost due east of the Keys, is San Salvador. On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus set the tone for the ensuing history of the Islands by declaring that spot the conquest of far-off interests. Only in the last two decades has the Islands even begun to break that pattern.
Dividing the Bahamas from the third chain are the Greater Antilles, the only four sizable islands of the Caribbean. Cuba is far and away the largest, stretching, as it does, the distance from New York to Chicago, or Los Angeles to Eugene, Oregon. Castro has made great gains in literacy and public health among his people. His island's economy, however, is still essentially agricultural, depending heavily on sugar and tobacco, as always. Fluctuations in international markets for these goods, and the ever-present threat of crop disease, continue to make the economy of the island fragile and the possibilities for social unrest high. In fact, the 1980 Cuban refugee flood was triggered by such conditions. Cuba is a member of Comecon, the eastern European common market, and Castro's critics like to point out that without Soviet aid, which totals millions of dollars a day, the island would collapse. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico, the smallest of these four islands, is also now the wealthiest, with a per capita income approaching $3000. Unfortunately, that's still less than half the rate in Florida, and not even within shouting distance of impoverished Mississippi's, which is $5000. And of that total, almost a quarter of it is tax dollars transferred from the United States in one form or another, such as food stamps. Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico has a commonwealth association with the United States, an association about which few feel completely comfortable. Its residents are American citizens, but though they can vote in presidential-preference primaries, they can't vote in the general election. They are exempt from U.S. income tax, but have no voting representation in Congress. Puerto Rico has about as much self-rule as an American state, but that's nothing compared to the autonomy of, say, a Canadian province. Puerto Rico is no longer "the poorhouse of the Caribbean," as it was once known. Industrialization programs arising from Puerto Rico's special tax relations with the United States have created so many jobs that Puerto Rico is now witnessing more immigration - much of it in the form of Puerto Ricans returning from mainland cities - than emigration. But the price has been air and water pollution unmatched in the Islands, a pollution so bad that it's now killing crops. In the early eighties, Puerto Rico is scheduled to conduct a plebiscite to determine whether it should remain a commonwealth, become an independent nation, or be the fifty-first state. The creation of a 98 percent Hispanic state-in effect, a declaration that you don't have to speak English to be a full United States citizen - would have enormous continental implications. The point will be dwelt on at greater length in the chapter on MexAmerica. The island separating these two is Hispaniola, divided into the Dominican Republic on the eastern, Puerto Rican side, and Haiti on the Cuban side.
Haiti is, hands down, the most miserable place in the Caribbean. Of every ten people, only one can read and write. The language is Créole, a corruption of French, which virtually nobody elsewhere understands. Most men don't live to see fifty. The practice of voodoo is widespread. The government, such as it is, is in the hands of the Duvalier family, as it has been for decades. In 1980, hundreds of black Haitian refugees started flowing into South Florida each day. Anglo officials, with no idea of what to do with these people, who had practically no skills appropriate to the twentieth century, urged that they be deported. They're not political refugees, the argument went. They're merely starving.
The refugees' supporters replied that in Haiti starvation is political, and thus they are legitimate refugees; justice demands that they be rescued and settled.
This is an interesting doctrine. The Haitians arrived in South Florida by overcrowding tiny boats and then floating them north. Because the Bahamas are so tightly packed, the Haitians were able to break the seven-hundred-mile trip into ten-, twenty-, and fifty-mile chunks, manageable during calm weather. In 1980, when multiple crop failures caused repeated social unrest in Cuba, mainland Cubans pulled thousands of refugees a day off the island with relatively inexpensive pleasure craft. Open out-board runabouts as small as eighteen feet made the 180-mile round trip between Key West and the port of Mariel without compasses. Larger craft, such as cabin cruisers commonly used in deep-sea fishing, made it in six-foot seas.
The point is that there is no place in the Islands that cannot be reached by these methods, and the corollary would seem to be that there is no place in this watery nation that cannot easily export its hungry to the wealthy capital of the Islands, South Florida. If this reality is going to be accepted, then South Florida suddenly has a very keen financial interest in the affairs of despots like Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. It would appear that if Miami doesn't want these refugees, its only option is to start taking an active hand in the affairs of the regimes under which they're starving. Either that, or push the boat people back out into the water to drown, which seems unlikely, although that's been the answer in other parts of the world.
Just below Cuba, and to the west of Haiti, is Jamaica. English-speaking, also black, and blessed with substantial bauxite deposits, it nonetheless suffers from perhaps the most crippled economy in the Islands, with, in the seventies, seven straight years of negative economic growth. Its former radical socialist prime minister, Michael Manley, claimed Jamaica was the victim of imperialist exploitation. And, as a matter of fact, bauxite-ore refineries, which make valuable aluminum, creating jobs, are scarce. Much of the refining is done in the far more wealthy - and secure - U.S. Virgin Islands, and the attendant money stays there. As a result, many Jamaicans have also emigrated - quite a few to Great Britain, since the island has commonwealth status in the United Kingdom. That's caused enormous racial unrest in England, which is not accustomed to its colonial past coming back to haunt it in the form of dark-skinned citizens from the West Indies. Meanwhile, international financial institutions, like the International Monetary Fund, have made it clear that the island will see no more development loans until the government stops spending at a rate almost twice that of its incoming tax revenues.
These four Greater Antilles are the northernmost barrier of the Caribbean Sea; to the northwest, Cuba almost touches Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, separating the Caribbean from the Gulf of Mexico. Just to the east of Puerto Rico begins the third island chain, the Lesser Antilles, starting with the Virgin Islands. (The Virgin Islands were named by Columbus after the virgins of St. Ursula - who some consider the patron saint of sailors - for reasons probably too unsavory to speculate on.) This third archipelago curves out into the Atlantic and then back in toward the mainland of Venezuela in the shape of a horseshoe on its side. The northernmost are called the Leeward Islands; the southern-most, the Windward. The islands double back on themselves in such a way that they end farther west than they began - in the Netherlands Antilles. Almost touching Venezuela, the Netherlands Antilles are the most mysterious international banking and corporate haven in the hemisphere. Only the Bahamas come close in the race to harbor North American cash flows beyond the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service.
The question of which beaches in the Islands are the most spectacular is debated endlessly, heatedly, sometimes drunkenly, but never idly. The economy of much of this nation, after all, is still tourist-dependent.
But should you wish to search out the widest, softest, most deserted sands . . . Or carefully calculate which waters are the closest to the temperature of amniotic fluid, lacking only the fetal tha-thump-thump, tha-thump-thump to force total withdrawal from whatever you once thought was important . . . Or spend your days searching for words to describe the color of the sea-unnatural blues from ice to indigo; greens that would be repulsive, comparable to the color of an algae bloom, were they not so clear and beautiful . . . Should you care to study sunsets the strata of which drive observers literally and unself-consciously to applause . . .
Start with the Lesser Antilles, perhaps in Guadeloupe or Martinique - halfway through the chain.
Then spend the rest of your life working your way out.
Where was I?
At the extremities of North America - both at the Arctic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea - boundaries become debatable. The southern rim of the Caribbean, for example - Venezuela and Colombia - are unarguably on the mainland of South America. Yet equally unarguably they are part of the southern sphere that has Miami for its capital.
Venezuela, for example, not Saudi Arabia, invented OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. (The original idea was, believe it or not, basically ecological. The world, so the theory went, should not waste its resources and pollute its air and water. A cartel would be able to enforce conservation and husbanding. It has, too.) While Venezuela's oil is the property of the government, its development has produced a relatively large upper middle class. The oil may belong to the people, but the pipelines, the housing for the workers, and the Pepsi-Cola bottling plants to quench their thirst, were put up by local private enterprise, at a profit that often finds itself reinvested in Miami.
Enormous quantities of marijuana, cocaine, and methaqualone pills (known familiarly by their trade name, Quaaludes) are being produced or transshipped from Colombia, just west of Venezuela. The Wall StreetJournal calculated that if the multibillion-dollar underground economy were ever taken into account, the United States would be revealed as a net agricultural importing country. The value of the vast exports of corn, wheat, and soybeans to fill bellies would be more than offset by the imports of vegetables that bend minds. Most of that trade is brokered in Miami.
Central America can also legitimately lay claim to this nation. It's geographically proximate. (Remember, the Panama Canal is east of Miami.) The Miami Herald circulates its Latin American edition there. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize share much historically and politically with the Islands. They all are struggling with the passing of an old order marked by tightly held oligarchies that controlled tremendous land and wealth to the detriment of the campesinos - the peasants who worked the land. Their future is very much up for grabs. They could come down anywhere in the political spectrum from revolutionary communism to social democracy to iron-fisted military dictatorship. Meanwhile, whoever loses in these internal struggles seems unerringly to take refuge in Miami.
In Florida, meanwhile, the western border of the Islands starts at the Gulf of Mexico city of Fort Myers. Fort Myers is a bit north of an area called the Ten Thousand Islands. That would be an appropriate name were it not an undercount. This underdeveloped area really is less full of islands than it is an extension of the tufts and hummocks of the Everglades. The difference between them and the swamp is that they're surrounded by enough water to permit navigation by craft larger than an air boat. They've been a smuggler's paradise since the days of Spanish gold, and there are tales that just below their surface you can still find caches of rum lost during Prohibition. A line drawn from Fort Myers to Jupiter Inlet, under the orange groves that surround huge Lake Okeechobee, also happens to approximate the boundary of the U.S. Customs District of South Florida, which is appropriate. When a Florida official was asked whether the drug-runners of Colombia had annexed this part of his state, he replied, thoughtfully, "No. But they have declared it a free-trade zone."
It's obviously possible to overestimate the importance of the drug and intrigue industries of the Islands. Millions of its citizens, after all, go about their business every day without knowing a joint from a shuffleboard cue. But ignoring the dope presence in the Islands is like trying to ignore oil in Texas. The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations estimates that approximately $52 billion are spent on drugs in the United States each year. That's equivalent to the total assets of Exxon, the world's largest corporation. And the undeniable capital of that trade is Miami.
Trying to get a straight fix on the impact of this money on the community is difficult. Both the smugglers and most law enforcement operations are prime sources of the macho b.s. mentioned earlier. They love to tell cops-and-robbers stories about plane chases and gunshots on the high seas. And they're good stories, too. But they tend to be isolated views, skewed to make the bad guys look bad, and the good, good, depending on the teller's perspective.
The least mouth-foaming, most thoughtful interview I had on the subject was with a top official of the Florida State Attorney's office, who asked to remain anonymous. He started by acknowledging that his outfit was simply not even trying to shut down any major segment of the industry.
We're not even keeping up [he said, with an ironic chuckle]. Tell you what we do. Like with the Sting [his office's major 1979 antidrug operation]. The Sting was a big case. We ran twenty-two wires [wiretaps]. We charged a hundred and twenty people. Got another hundred that we may charge before it's all over. Created a big flash, a lot of publicity. Well, the action just shifted from here over to Fort Myers. And as many as we divert, there are still more drug operators in Dade County [Miami] than we can handle. Yeah, we're pissing against the tide. There's no question about it.
The thing about DEA [the federal Drug Enforcement Administration] . . . There's no question that narcotics is a huge, major industry in Florida. But the truth about those figures [such as the ones quoted by the Senate] is that DEA doesn't have any idea how big it is. They keep saying that so much is being taken down, so much is not being taken down. They say law enforcement is getting seven, eight percent of the narcotics coming in. They just don't know.
And that's the overwhelming thing to me. Here's this huge national agency doing all of this stuff, and they just haven't been very effective. This is economic crime. This is big business. Seizing narcotics is simply a cost of doing business to the smugglers. The profits they're making . . . A seizure is just a negligible cost.
I'm very concerned about the whole value structure. What's happening with police agencies. Last year, this office, in conjunction with the Internal Review Agency of the Miami Police Department, made cases against fifteen police officers in one year. Fifteen! And we could do the same thing with PSD. [The Dade County Public Safety Department is the largest police force in South Florida.] Morale is so low there . . . I'm afraid we're going to lose PSD. We've had a couple of employees - one we made a case against - selling files out of here a couple of years back. One last year quit before we got a chance to fire her. She was living with a cocaine importer. It's something you've constantly got to be worried about.
Hell, there are lawyers in this office who use Quaaludes, cocaine, and marijuana, but they're very careful about it. I've told everybody here that if I can ever make a case against them, I'm gonna bust their ass. But a lot of them are University of Miami Law School graduates, and it's just part of the culture. So instead, all we do is get to bust cops.
My belief is that there is a group of very rich, very large-scale narcotics people who conduct proactive infiltration [of law enforcement agencies]. In other words, they're going after information actively. They're not sitting back and taking what comes. They're hiring ex-policemen to work in things like security firms, working with narcotics importers.
They have people like "Monkey" Morales. Ricardo Morales. He's a Cuban fellow who fought with Castro, then turned against him, worked for the CIA for years, was a major or something in the Venezuelan secret police. Very sophisticated. We arrested Monkey at a narcotics scene, un-loading bales of marijuana. He had with him a radio to monitor all law enforcement radios - federal, state, maritime. And he had with him a book in which all the law enforcement bands were written down. So he could flip to them as he wanted to. Of course, those bands are supposed to be secret. He didn't just have a scanner. He knew exactly where to go. Morales is a very suave, sophisticated man. A golden man. Yeah, I guess it is nice to be able to have respect for your adversaries.
There are banks that we can point to that are out of line. Not that many, but they exist. Many other banks are used without their knowledge. The effect on the real estate prices is just killing us. So much money. So much money. Powerful and respected people have relationships with people who are well-known narcotics types. I'm just terrified, with the kind of money that is involved with banking, real estate, other kinds of things, about what's going to happen to the political situation over the next fifteen or twenty years.
Those security agencies they're creating. These people are putting on uniforms, and there's a hundred of them, and these people may be ex-police officers, ex-Batista officers, and they work for the smugglers, providing protection. They're a private army. They fight other narcotics people, they protect themselves, they conduct extortion, provide a political force in the community . . . Hell, what did they do with private armies in old Havana?
Most murder is really second-degree. Neighbor kills neighbor, a family dispute, a traffic dispute. Especially in a community like this, with everybody armed. But our true first-degree murder - a planned, pre-meditated killing, cold-blooded . . . a majority of that, far and away, is drug-related. Because our murder rate is so high here, because we've got so many other kinds of problems, no way we can keep up. If you want to commit a whodunit, you're best off doing it here now. We just don't have the investigative time.
We're drawing the battle line at trying to maintain the integrity of institutions. If we can maintain integrity in political and police and other institutions - some of our large financial institutions - we'll be ahead of the game. I would be ecstatic if we could do that. Because there's so much money.
The revised standard cops-and-robbers of the drug industry in the Islands goes like this:
Since about 1978, when the Mexican government's efforts to put a lid on its own marijuana-growers by bombing the fields with herbicides started showing real results, the drug capital of the hemisphere has been the Guajira Peninsula, on the Caribbean side of Colombia, which supplies about 70 percent of the North American market. Stretching from its long and irregular Caribbean coastline into the rugged and isolated ravines of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the peninsula is remote and underdeveloped. Thatched huts are common, and not even Bogotá is nearby. The broiling climate and the mountain soil combine to yield plants fifteen feet tall - three times as big as standard North American home-grown - and loaded with powerful resin. Marijuana generally produces a mild, relaxing euphoria that somehow focuses the user's attention on the finer points of music, graphic arts, and conversation, according to reports. Some of the Colombian stuff, however, is so strong that it rolls home movies on the inside of your eyeballs. Just like coffee, which is another Colombian export, the best product traditionally came from the mountains. But such innovations as irrigation, tractors, careful pruning, and the introduction of Asian seeds and carefully nurtured hybrids, have attracted the interest even of connoisseurs to the marijuana grown in the plains. A Colombian government official, outraged at the talk that 25,000 acres of his country were devoted to the drug, made a "strict calculation" based on helicopter observations and came up with the figure that 250,000 acres - ten times the original estimate - were under cultivation. Time magazine calculated that "such fields have a potential of producing six billion pounds of marijuana, each pound worth $600."
Of course, multiply that out and you've got $3.6 trillion worth of marijuana out of this little corner of the planet; that's almost twice the gross national product of the United States, and obviously a completely wrong figure. But it helps explain where some of the more commonly accepted, but still fabulously high figures come out. One percent of Time's figure would be $36 billion, which is the traditional low-end-of-the-scale estimate of the worth of the entire North American drug industry.
Cocaine generally does not originate in Colombia; it comes from the Andes of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where the coca shrubs are grown. Colombia is the place where it's refined into fine dust and fitted into the transportation pipeline. Cocaine produces a tremendous sense of power - you feel that your mind and body are a delicately tuned machine of the gods; that you're smart, beautiful, and tough enough to tackle anything successfully. It was made in heaven for lawyers and other control-junkies, which explains why the allegations that it was being used by the White House staff - though apparently utterly groundless - were credible.
Because of the pipeline, Colombia has become a manufacturer of millions of Quaalude pills, almost as an afterthought. According to my Miami psychopharmacology adviser (his motto about pills: "If you don't know what they are, never take more than three of them"), Quaaludes produce an inhibition reduction akin to that felt after the consumption of two or three six-packs of beer (at half the price), while leaving the user with a comparatively clear, if extremely twisted, head. Very popular with the younger set, who, in the past, were the only ones who would dream of drinking beer to get drunk in the first place.
As of this writing, little heroin, if any, is attached to the Colombia trade. This comes at a time when the use of heroin - the only genuinely addictive narcotic in this list - has declined markedly in North America from the level of the 1960s, although it's edging back up. All other categories of dope, with the possible exception of LSD, have boomed.
I've heard a dozen conflicting accounts of how the economics of all this works. Lord knows which one is accurate. But, since U.S. tax dollars paid for it, I'll give you the DEA's version:
Cocaine goes through six transactions between the grower and the user. In four of them, its value doubles each time. In the first and last, it increases by at least a factor of ten or twenty times. The South American peasant sells 500 kilos (half a ton) of coca leaves for about $250, which is pretty good money in a country like Peru, where the average person makes only about $500 a year, total. Step two: the leaves are reduced to about two and a half kilos of paste, which sells for $5000. Step three, that paste is processed into one kilo of cocaine base, worth $10,000. Step four, the base is crystallized by a Colombian lab, and that kilo sells for $20,000. Step five: it's smuggled to Florida, where it brings $40,000. Step six: it's cut to wholesale strength by distributors, increasing its value to $80,000. Step seven: it's cut to retail strength, about 12 percent (although it can be as low as 5 percent), and it becomes worth $800,000. Note that we're talking about something the size of two cans of coffee, which can also be dissolved in harmless-looking liquids like perfume, or compressed and packed into any orifice imagination can devise.
It's something of a miracle that any of it is intercepted at all. Several runners, or "mules," were discovered to be smuggling only after they dropped dead. They'd swallowed small bags of the stuff, hoping to regurgitate them after they'd cleared customs. Unfortunately, some of the bags had burst. Note also that the real money is all made after the stuff is smuggled in, which also suggests the profits are largely spent in continental North America.
But marijuana, although nowhere near as costly per kilo, is the really lucrative product. Not only is the market much larger, but marijuana requires no processing. Dry it, bale it like hay, wrap the bales, and it's ready to go. Of the ultimate wholesale price, which is currently about $400 a kilo, according to DEA, the grower again gets only about 1 percent. But that's still much more than he could get scraping corn from the land. After transportation costs, the rest is gravy - much of which also stays up north. Of course, because it is so bulky, it doesn't pay to razzle-dazzle it past the customs agents in small quantities. So it's shipped in multiton lots, and this is where the excitement begins.
Getting marijuana out of Colombia is not the major logistical hassle. The drug industry has produced an unprecedented $4 billion positive balance of trade for Colombia. But since that's in dollars, the government has to print pesos to buy them, and that's produced a 30 percent inflation rate. So the current regime, alarmed at the disintegration of order in its economy, has sent its Army out to try to crimp the trafficantes. But bribes are effective, and the territory to cover forbidding.
An innocent-looking yacht, or for that matter, even a suspicious-looking freighter, can easily duck into corners of Colombia's extensive coast along what was once called the Spanish Main. Untold numbers of airstrips have been hacked out of the shrubbery, marked only as memorized coordinates on a map. (Flying by coordinates is not for amateurs, which is one reason people end up seriously dead from a case of landing at the wrong airstrip. Or just simply crashing. It also explains why there are so many well-trained Vietnam-era pilots in the business. This kind of enterprise is only for those who actually get off on fear.)
Blending into the heavy interisland traffic is also not the major problem. The way the United States law is written, Colombian seamen could fly the flag of the seven-leaved marijuana symbol from the poop deck and still not be eligible for arrest as long as they remained outside the twelve-mile limit and displayed no intent to enter it. Landing the stuff is the test.
Florida is, on average, the flattest place in North America, which is convenient for airplanes. It's so convenient that one of the dope planes - unloaded and abandoned - was discovered by a former governor of the state, much to his outrage, on an isolated portion of his ranch in the deserted interior of the peninsula. Pilots getting $25,000 for twenty-four hours' work have been known to put cargo planes down in a field marked only by the headlights of two pickup trucks, one at either end of the target.
As mentioned earlier, coastal radar and air-traffic controllers are often evaded by pilots flying in over the treetops. But recently, authorities have experimented with the use of Airborne Warning and Control Systems planes. These are military 707s whose radar and computers can actually look down from considerable altitude. They were designed, appropriately enough, to command and control everything off the ground in a complex theater of war. Unfortunately, such aircraft are so rare, and their use so expensive ("For once," said Commandant John Hayes of the Coast Guard, "we have something more sophisticated than smugglers can buy"), that not even governments can afford to use them routinely. So, much gets through. Drug-running is so lucrative, for that matter, that it's been calculated that four planes out of five could be nabbed - ten times the current level of success - and the one flight that got through with its three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar-a-ton cargo would still make the effort superbly profitable.
An entire industry, in fact, has sprung up in South Florida to provide ancient and expendable aircraft to the drug trade. For $10,000 or $20,000, under the table, cash, tax free, fixed-base operators with a legitimate cover provide untraceable old gooney birds. They are often abandoned after only one flight in order to frustrate lawmen. In one case, a DEA source told the New YorkTimes, smugglers "landed their small plane, unloaded the dope, climbed back in and headed back out to sea, set it on automatic pilot, and parachuted out, leaving the plane to fly until it ran out of gas and crashed in 500 feet of water." If the fixed-base operator has real guts, he then reports the plane as stolen and collects the insurance on his smashed plane, in addition to the payoff. The smugglers write off the craft as a very minor cost of doing business - more expensive than the price to the peasant of growing its cargo, but cheaper than the pilot, and worth maybe 2 percent of the wholesale value of a ton of marijuana. And a DC-4 can carry seven and a half tons.
But the latest twist in the seagoing trade is what has authorities really demoralized. They had tried monitoring the dope from space. They negotiated the use of surveillance satellites to track freighters from Guajira, across the Caribbean, around the Windward Passage near Cuba, up the Santaren Channel to Florida. They succeeded in zeroing in on specific ships, all the way, and as soon as the vessels entered coastal waters, they were nabbed, much to the amazement of their crews. But this led to a practice of mother ships steaming up the coast, outside territorial water, while their crews heaved waterproofed marijuana bales out into the ocean. In order to avoid suspicion on the part of coastal radar operators, they didn't even slow down. Shrimping vessels out of Key West, after waiting a decent interval until the freighter was over the horizon, then showed up at the predetermined point and hauled in the "square grouper," as the bales are picturesquely known, and brought them into dock.
Some of the ships are now sporting electronic rigs costing $250,000 each in order to make the connection precisely. The equipment beams in on a navigational signal that fixes position on the featureless sea with a margin of error measured in feet. Ironically, the signal is beamed from a cousin of the machine that started this dance in the first place - a military satellite.
The tales can go on and on. An FBI spokesman told me reverently of a twenty-van parade full of dope that trooped up Interstate 95 with communications wagons fore and aft, and air support looking for police up ahead.
But the question remains: What is this traffic doing to the Islands?
Charles Kimball angers a lot of Islands people who don't like the implications of his analyses, but no one questions his expertise when it comes to the makeup of the South Florida real estate market. Kimball is an economist whose fanatic devotion to researching arcane real estate transfer records has led him to conclude that 40 percent of all sales over $300,000 in the Miami area are paid for with money that smells.
His work shows that the Islands has evolved a highly sophisticated banking system that unites otherwise widely disparate entrepreneurs, everywhere from Venezuela to South Florida to Central America, in one common cause: getting around the financial laws of the dozens of places in the Islands that make the mistake of trying to act as if they have sovereign governments.
In order to follow his logic, you have to understand that the United States has gone to great lengths in its tax law to make sure that a citizen of one country, investing in some other country, is not clobbered by taxation from both countries. Originally written to allow U.S. corporations investing abroad to remain competitive with home-grown companies, the tax law now also allows the citizens of Colombia, for example, to buy and sell shopping centers in South Florida without paying any capital gains tax on the transaction there. The theory is that such investors will ultimately have to pay taxes back home in Colombia, just as Floridians investing in Colombia have to pay their native tax. This is all completely legal.
However, scattered all over the globe, there are, various tiny specks of land that have, improbably, become international finance centers because of the peculiarities of their laws. In Europe, these include Liechtenstein and the Isle of Jersey. But the major collection of havens are in the Islands - notably, the Netherlands Antilles, near Venezuela; the Bahamas, near Florida; the Cayman Islands, south of Cuba; and Panama; although there are others.
In the Netherlands Antilles, particularly, corporations are allowed to maintain complete anonymity. There is no legal way to compel the representatives of corporations domiciled there to reveal who their major stockholders are, or where their money came from, unlike in the United States. Roughly speaking, it's the corporate equivalent of a numbered Swiss bank account.
Furthermore, the laws of these places are such that transactions in exotic currencies can be accomplished with far more ease than they could in the United States. So-called Eurodollars, for example - U.S. dollars that are exchanged as a kind of world currency in all parts of the globe, but obviously without the monetary controls of U.S. agencies whose jurisdictions do not extend overseas - are readily handled in the Bahamas. If these dollars changed hands fifty miles west, in Palm Beach, they would be open to a barrage of probing questions as to their origin, destination, and tax obligations.
So, because of the tax laws, the anonymous corporations, and the currency laws, what it comes down to is that you can work all kinds of scams out of the Islands.
If you have just sold a DC-4 full of dope, for example, you now have four shopping bags, weighing a total of about ninety pounds, loaded with slips of paper six inches long, two and a half inches wide, on each of which is a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. And you've got a problem. What do you do with four and a half million dollars in cash?
(How do you know you've actually received all the $100 bills to which you are entitled? Either you've fed them through your automatic money-counting machine, which, at a rate of $150,000 a minute, or $l00 every .04 second, still would take half an hour to total up the bucks; or, if you're in a hurry, which happens in this trade, you would simply weigh them. One hundred million dollars in $100 bills goes you almost exactly a ton.)
Obviously, walking around with shopping bags full of money (this is literally done because there is so much money involved in drug-dealing) is not the most convenient way of operating. Apart from the physical problems of the weight and bulk (these are real considerations), a very sophisticated law enforcement agency may be able to follow your cash through its various transactions and back to you. Even if they can't lay a finger on you for drug-dealing, they may try to buck the new privacy laws that make this difficult by hitting you with tax-evasion charges, as they did to the mobsters in the thirties.
What you do, then, is ship the money to the anonymous corporation your lawyer has set up for you in the Netherlands Antilles. You can accomplish the transfer in one of two ways. You can fly it to your extremely discreet bank in the Cayman Islands, right next to you on the first class seat you've bought for it. But again, while this is sometimes done, it's inconvenient.
Or you can bring it to a downtown Miami bank, for electronic transfer.
Now if the Miami bank is operating legally, it will routinely report to the authorities that you've made a large cash transaction. If you don't like the kind of attention this may bring, you buy a company like a dress shop or U.S. auto dealership, which can become a regular customer of the bank, thus becoming exempt from the cash-reporting law. Or you can buy the bank, replacing the board of directors with people who see things your way. Outlaws used to rob banks. Now they buy them. This happens. The wife of your basic Class I felon picked up a South Florida bank for $4 million recently, which is less than you, hypothetically, have in your shopping bags. A standard parlor game among Miami journalists is figuring out which banks are knowingly operating illegally and which are simply being used without their knowledge.
Once the various banks have accomplished the transfer of your money to the control of your offshore corporation, this money suddenly becomes the property, in the eyes of the law, of a Netherlands Antilles entity, eligible for all the tax benefits accruing to a foreign investor. So when you want to buy a shopping center in South Florida with your drug money, you'll find the money treated as clean foreign cash. It is also not taxed in Florida, because presumably it is being taxed elsewhere. But since nobody knows that you're behind this offshore corporation, and nobody can find out, you can keep the various tax men of various regimes confused for a long time.
But okay, suppose you're by no means a drug-dealer. Suppose your money was made in a perfectly legitimate fashion. Say you're a Pepsi-Cola bottler in one of the Islands. Now, if your island is poor and slightly Marxist - or if it is merely poor and under a lot of heat from the International Monetary Fund - it probably has laws against your taking profits out of the country. Your leaders undoubtedly figure that it's your patriotic duty to reinvest the dough in the island where your profits were made. If you don't agree, they can and will, with some justification, brand you as an imperialist exploiter of the masses and throw you in the slammer.
But suppose you don't see it their way. It could be that you figure that you risked your own capital and used your own ingenuity to make these profits, and it's your money, so you should be able to do with it what you see fit. You may be concerned that your local government is showing signs of being overthrown in a coup, or it may be showing signs of nationalizing your business without offering you what you consider fair compensation. Or, for that matter, you may simply be appalled at the staggering inflation rates common in your part of the world, and want to shelter your money in South Florida, where the inflation rate is only double-digit, not triple-digit.
Again, what you do is ship your excess cash out to your anonymous Netherlands Antilles corporation, where it is suddenly transformed into clean foreign cash, indistinguishable from the drug-dealer's. You either smuggle the actual cash out of the country, or, more likely, you bribe a government official to ignore a wire transfer.
In this case, you are not breaking any United States laws; merely those of the country in which you made your money. And furthermore, there are a lot of Miami bankers and lawyers who would not dream of getting involved with black dollars - with drug money - who would love to help out you and your gray money because they see restrictions on the international flow of capital as a sin. They see your country's laws in the same way you do - as a crime against everything free-market economies stand for - and they are proud to strike a blow for the unrestricted international flow of capital. They're great friends of deposed dictators.
Finally, you could be a Venezuelan who's made a lot of money on government contracts. Your country has no laws against your shipping out your money, but if the government leaders find that you're doing it, they may interpret that as a vote of no confidence on your part in your country's future, and they may retaliate by not giving you any more business.
So you, too, have a motive for masking your South Florida investments by going through an anonymous offshore corporation. This transaction is completely legal; but again, the object of the game is to deceive your government.
There are a very few utterly legitimate reasons for using Netherlands Antilles' anonymous corporations. The most commonly cited is the case of an industrialist who is attempting to hide his true worth lest his family attract the attention of terrorists seeking ransom money. But there isn't a law enforcement agent alive who thinks that there are enough terrorists in the whole world to make such considerations alone the reason remote islands have become major world finance centers.
This system, of course, works for money that comes in from outside the Islands, too. Politically alarmed Italians, sophisticated Germans, and determined members of the Québécois mob all use these arrangements. But what's special about the Islands' underground economy - apart from its enormity - is that every important element of the infrastructure is right here, from the seed money to the offshore shelters to the highly trained cadre of professional people skilled in ignoring dozens of widely disparate legal systems to the end market of South Florida real estate.
Once you see it the way the people who use the system do, the whole arrangement acquires a great grace and beauty. It's a finely tuned instrument designed to circumvent the historically wrong, sociologically misguided, and petty considerations of babbling bureaucrats trying to intervene between simple tradesmen trying to make a buck and the multitudes who only want a Pepsi-Cola or a snort of cocaine or whatever. If the Islands were half as good at distributing necessities to the bottom 50 percent of its population as it is in facilitating the exchange of wealth among the top 5, it could really bring paradise to paradise.
In the meantime, of course, the system is shredding the institutions theoretically committed to other economic and social goals and standards of morality. Professions founded on trust, such as banking, accounting, and the law, are thoroughly compromised. The Miami Herald, in 1980, ran an entertaining but mind-numbing six-part series in which it painted the entire economy and system of government and justice of Key West, from the police to the city attorney to the state's attorney to the fire chief to bankers, builders, real estate agents, merchants, jewelers, car-dealers, boat manufacturers, and fishermen, as part of a matter-of-fact system dedicated to importing drugs. "It's a legitimate, illegitimate business," they quoted public defender John Keane as saying. "The law becomes a nullity when it's laughed at by so many people." Folk openly sport bumper stickers that say WHEN MARIJUANA IS LEGALIZED, I WILL BE ON WELFARE. That one is allegedly circulated by the “Key West Pharmaceutical Shipper's Association.” But the president of the Key West Business Guild was quoted as saying, "I'm sure it's our biggest industry. I don't really care. I don't know what's bad about it."
Well, for one thing, such an underground economy, which obviously pays little in taxes, drives up the levies on those who do participate in the legitimate portion of the economy. It also adds significantly to negative balances of trade, driving down the value of the affected currencies, like the dollar. That helps fuel inflation.
Sam Nunn, former chairman of the U.S. Senate Investigations Subcommittee, said, "These narco-dollars may have an economic impact that is similar, in character if not size, to the more infamous 'petro-dollars,' both in terms of inflation and on our balance of payments. Every narco-dollar that is paid to a Colombian pot grower or hidden away in a numbered foreign bank account is lost to our economy, just like a petro-dollar spent for one gallon of imported gasoline."
Of course, Charles Kimball's calculations indicate that Senator Nunn may have a bigger problem than he thinks, because it appears clear that these dollars are not staying "out there." Like petro-dollars in the hands of Arabs buying up properties in the western hemisphere, these dollars are coming home.
In 1979, said Kimball, who adds that his figures are so tight that they are admissible as evidence in court should the need arise, a hundred thousand housing units worth $7 billion changed hands in the South Florida counties of Dade (Miami) and Broward (Fort Lauderdale). Almost $5 billion worth of commercial properties were sold. Zeroing in on one quarter - the last of '79 - and merely the most expensive properties - those over $300,000 in worth - Kimball says that 42 percent of the sales - almost half - were made to foreign-controlled entities or investors.
Of those sales, 54 percent - more than half - were carried out through the anonymous offshore corporations. "This is the stuff to be really worried about," said Kimball. "The offshore anonymous corporations outnumber the other legitimate investors I could find. Every one of those is suspicious. I would say at least eighty percent of these sales are crooked. Are very bad." He then pointed to a chart on which he traced in percentage terms things like "direct investments of major drug-dealers," "investments of international swindlers," "bribes, embezzlements, graft," "income tax evasion," and so forth.
The foreign investors, many of them narcotics financed [Kimball has testified], have huge cash resources so that when they are competing against legitimate investors who want to buy a property, they are quite willing to make larger down payments, quite willing to bid up the price so that the real yield, for example, on a large building in Coral Gables would be about one percent. You can see that no [ordinary] investor would be prudent to compete in the present financial market. If the doctor has to pay more for his office, or a warehouse in which brooms are kept has to have higher rent, because of this type of inflation, you can begin to see the impact on every citizen. And in some areas we see virtually all shopping centers in large metropolitan areas, virtually all office buildings, going into the hands of foreign investors.
Right where Arthur Godfrey Road from the mainland meets Collins Avenue, the main drag of the island of Miami Beach, stands the Crown Hotel. One of the last two all-kosher hotels on the Beach, the Crown for years has catered to nothing but the most dedicated practitioners of the Jewish faith. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, it chains its driveway, because it is forbidden to the devout to travel on the Sabbath. The hotel will only take emergency telephone calls on Saturdays, because phone calls on the Sabbath are taboo. Its front desk is staffed by young men in crocheted yarmulkes. Its veteran director of food services explained to me at great length the effort the hotel goes to to make sure that, for example, no tiger's milk somehow gets slipped onto the breakfast tray. Not being knowledgeable about such things, I was confused. You mean Tiger's Milk, the stuff that comes in powder form that health nuts and body-builders use as a diet supplement? I asked. What's wrong with that? No, he explained with a straight face, tiger's milk. The stuff that comes out of the females of those big mean cats if you hold one down and pull on its teats. Tiger's milk isn't kosher. Neither is camel's milk. We have rabbis to make sure that the milk we serve is strictly kosher. It comes out of nothing but cows. Or goats. Goat's milk is kosher. Never from tigers or camels.
The Crown deals with all kinds of problems not frequently encountered in other hotels. Some of its male patrons, for example, refuse to enter the swimming pool out by the beach if there are women in it. That would be a defilement. So these people have to swim in shifts. Jerry Pinault, the assistant general manager, is given fits trying to juggle reservations because some guests won't take rooms on high floors. Using the elevator, you see, would be a violation of the Sabbath. And then there are the extreme devotees of the laws of Moses for whom he has to provide pre-cut toilet paper. There's something about tearing it off the roll that appalls them.
But the most unprecedented hassle the Crown Hotel had gone through in some time was occurring the day I was there. Management was trying to figure out where to put the dart board. On that spring day, the hotel, which normally would be getting ready to shut down for the season, was, instead, girding for an invasion of thousands of vacationers from Britain, who would be arriving at the hotel all through the summer. The Crown had applied for a liquor license for its tea room, figuring that the Brits would probably want a pint of stout from time to time.
But they had little idea where to go from there when it carne to creating a pub and making their Gentile foreign guests feel at home. After considerable debate, it was decided that a dart board was absolutely necessary, and it had been acquired. But then came the discussion of how large a free-fire zone one had to clear between it and a drunken limey with a clutch of very sharp objects in his fist. No one had a clue.
All over South Florida, calculations such as these are being made as the region adjusts to the declining importance of trade with the rest of North America, compared to trade with other parts of the Islands, South America, and Europe. The Crown Hotel's British invasion came as a result of some sharp-eyed tour-promoter's observation that a family from London could holiday for two weeks in Miami Beach cheaper than it could in Paris - even including air fare.
In the Columbus Hotel, meanwhile, on waterfront Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami, the newsstand offers Penthouse, the skin magazine - "Larevista internacional para hombres" - in its Spanish edition only. Selecciones del Reader's Digest is also there. The newspapers available do not include the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but the stands do stock Caracas' El Universal, Bogota's El Tiempo, and Buenos Aires' ElNacion.
Even the Miami Herald comes wrapped in El Miami Herald. El Herald is a daily Spanish-language newspaper with its own staff of reporters and editors that comes as an insert to the Miami Herald. Not merely a translation of the English-language paper, it functions as a quasi-independent voice, catering to its own readership. If the Herald is leading the paper with a particular story, El Herald may pick it up and make the news judgment to rewrite it or re-report it, but it may not. The same is true in reverse. The papers are read by two different worlds. Thus, the decisions about what constitutes news are not routinely congruent, although the various journalists involved in this process are some-what schizophrenically sitting right next to each other. The Herald, meanwhile, is running daily Spanish lessons on its comics page. ElHerald, however, does not run English lessons.
Up the street at the Everglades Hotel, a sign asks patrons to "perdonennuestra apariencia" because the hotel is being carefully remodeled in indirect light and dark wood tones, accented with chrome and black strips that somehow look rich and well-executed as they reflect the wood.
In Miami, you can wander around for an hour without once hearing a word of English, but unlike portions of other cities in North America, such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, which have far larger Hispanic communities, the Cuban dominance in Miami has resulted in an accent on wealth.
Downtown Miami has become the shopping district for the upper class of the Islands. Latino visitors to Miami, statistics show, spend two and a half times as much a day as Anglo visitors do. And the shops along the street named for railroader Flagler demonstrate that. Expensive cosmeticos are sold in chic nooks, as are such exotic goods as a bomba de achique. Which is a sump pump. For your yacht.
El Cowboy Ideal sells Hereford brand belt buckles, Texas Imperial boots, embroidered western shirts, and posters of frolicking colts, all at preciosespeciales para export.
Maurice Rizikow, whom many point to as the driving force behind a renewed downtown Miami, started as a Latino Horatio Alger. He came here in 1965 from Argentina, speaking broken English, and began selling imitation-fur coats out of a one-room shop on the fourth floor of a rundown building. Today he is the Miami connection for some of the freest spending the city has ever seen. His Electro Florida Corporation peddles $1700 video-tape decks and chest-high stacks of matched Pioneer audio components at prices that "the common man can afford," as the sign says in his window. In Spanish. Only in Spanish. He now owns the downtown Galería Internacional, with its forty-five shops, and is making plans to build a $38 million hotel aimed, as are all the downtown Miami hotels, at the Latin trade.
Granted, there is an economic explanation to the fact that virtually every store in downtown Miami either carries, or is next to a shop that carries, mammoth, hip-high suitcases convenient for only one thing: loading expensive goodies for a long return trip to Central and South America and the Caribbean.
"Look at it this way," Rizikow was quoted as saying. "Merchandise costing $2,000 in Miami sells for $4,000 in Argentina. So people fill their suitcases. When they get home they sell some things, keep some and get a free vacation out of the deal."
Be that as it may, for some Anglos it might be a little vertigo-inducing, imagining the scene in Costa Rica as the recently returned vacation family unpacks its downtown-Miami-obtained, brand-new water skis, roller-skating helmets, microscopes, auto-graphed steel tennis racquets, Nikon cameras, Gucci shoes, Givenchy shirts, electric popcorn machines, Sony televisions, Healthtex children's wear, Sortilege perfume, Levi's jeans, and riding saddle picked up at a branch of Hermés, the ultimate status-symbol leathercraft emporium of France, located in downtown Miami's Omni.
The ironies are considerable. Sixty percent of the luxury condominiums on Bickell Avenue in Key Biscayne are being, bought by Latins. "It works this way," one observer was quoted as saying. "First you buy a condo and come here for Easter. Then you decide to come up for a couple of weeks in August. There's not a lot to do here in August, so one of the kids says, 'Why don't we buy a boat?' That's another $45,000. When you've spent $45,000 for a damn boat you start spending long weekends here. The next thing you know someone says, 'You ought to buy a warehouse.' "
The bottom line is that the Anglo dream of Miami Beach, which, in the fifties, was proclaimed "the sun and fun capital of the world" by Jackie Gleason, who broadcast his shows from there when television was young, is now withering. Its glitz is peeling; its hotels are lined with autographed photos of the dead or might-as-well-be - Eddie Fisher, Joan Crawford, Spiro Agnew. Its attractions, such as the Fontainebleau Hotel, with its determination never to use a little rococo where a lot would do, used to elicit the inaccurate effusion "Now, that's class." Today, it's changed hands and been remodeled, in an attempt to eliminate its reputation as a monument to bad taste. The legalization of casino gambling in Miami Beach has been urged - unsuccessfully - by those who unconsciously demonstrate just how low the Beach has sunk by pointing to Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a model.
Meanwhile, otherwise sophisticated Miami Anglos unself-consciously remark, "Oh, nobody goes downtown," despite abundant evidence that the Latin American vision of Miami is thriving. It's made a hitherto typical dying downtown one of the most bustling spots in the Islands. What they mean is that nobody who doesn't speak Spanish goes downtown.
Bona fide Latin American trade and commerce has exploded through the South Florida gateway.
- Between 1974 and 1978, trade to and from the rest of the Islands more than doubled, to about $6.5 billion.
- As of early 1980, fifteen international offices of U.S. banks, chartered in Miami under terms of the federal Edge Act, were active. Fifteen more foreign banks, hailing from South America, the Islands, Great Britain, Spain, Israel, Canada, and Japan were setting up shop. They joined thirty international banks and a dozen international departments of local banks already there. This made Miami North America's third-largest international banking center, and its growth was not tapering off.
- Free-trade zones, in which goods remain free of customs duties while they are being assembled or transshipped, have boomed. The one in Miami alone is expected to handle $2 billion worth of goods a year, three quarters of which are expected to move by air.
- Since 1972, the number of firms engaged in the export-import business has tripled. The Miami Yellow Pages have eighty pages of ex-im listings. They show more than 300 freight forwarders.
- The seaport of Miami, which was supposed to fulfill the area's needs through the year 2000, is way overcrowded, and expansion plans are proceeding.
- The director of the Miami airport expects to see international passenger traffic at his facility jump from 40 percent of the action to 70 percent in the decade of the eighties.
And this has all happened since the arrival of the Cubans in the sixties. As one observer wrote, they "would pick up a suit at Burdines for $5 down, buy a ticket to South America, and start selling nuts and bolts to Latin countries out of a factory catalog. The trade is still dominated by Cubans, but exporters aren't pushing nuts and bolts. They sell whole factories."
While the Islands' export-import may have started as a mere mom-and-pop, pennies-a-day business run by a handful of immigrants, Anglo-dominated multinational corporations recognized a good thing when they saw it. Over a hundred have moved the headquarters of their Latin American operations to Coral Gables, a sanitized suburb of Miami. Most made the move in the late seventies.
Du Pont, North America's largest chemical company and sixteenth among Fortune's 500, with sales in '79 of over $12 billion, has a Central and South American operation that includes forty-seven plants with twelve thousand employees in fourteen countries, generating $700 million in sales on an investment of $600 million. It moved its Latin American headquarters to Coral Gables from its corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, after considering eight other cities: Mexico City; San José, Costa Rica; Bogotá, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela; São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. It ran an eighteen-point analysis of which city would best serve as the capital of its Latin American operations, and, according to Du Pont's Kenneth Trelenberg, this is how the hemisphere looked to a major multinational:
Buenos Aires and Bogotá were disqualified because of concern for the personal safety of employees transferred to those cities. There was quite a bit of terrorism going in those countries in nineteen seventy-eight, when this study was conducted.
Caracas was disqualified because of operational problems. That is, visa difficulties, acute shortage of hotel rooms, tax clearances needed for departure, and so forth. At that time, the Venezuelan government had its hands full trying to spend the oil money it was generating. They just had such a glut . . . Ships were sitting in the port for four to six months, trying to get unloaded. They just had too much business. And the way to slow things down is to make it difficult to get a visa.
San José and San Juan are somewhat isolated and lacking in direct air service to other locations in the area, so they were wiped out.
The remaining four cities - Mexico City, Coral Gables, São Paulo, and Rio - were surveyed and rated using the following criteria:
Number one, political stability and good business climate;
Number two, centrality of location;
Number three, regional air-transportation service;
Number four, telecommunications and mail service;
Number five, ability to maintain area perspective. Let me explain that a little bit. We have major subsidiaries in Mexico City and São Paulo and in Buenos Aires. There was a fear that there would be trouble with the local management maintaining its local perspective and the division management maintaining a regional perspective. The fear was that the regional management would always be telling them what to do, see.
The sixth category was ease of expatriate adjustment and living. In other words, living conditions. You know, [North Americans] think that they've got to go somewhere and they've got to have good clear running water and they've got to have sewerage, got to have lettuce they can eat, and vegetables, without fear of dysentery. And you've got to have a telephone in every bedroom and blah, blah, blah.
The seventh was operating costs.
The eleven other considerations included everything from how easy it would be to find a parking space near the office to availability of club facilities. But the first seven were considered important enough that they were assigned double weight. Out of a possible score of 100, Coral Gables came in at 87; Rio was second with 70; São Paulo, 60; and Mexico City, 55.
And the reasons those others bombed out [said Trelenberg], primarily were poor communications from that city to other cities in Latin America - not to the United States, but to other cities in Latin America - and poor air connections.
What it comes down to is that South Florida was regarded as the only place in the hemisphere with a truly advantageous mixing of cultures. Thanks to the Cubans, Latin Americans feel as if they're in Latin America. Thanks to the 782 overseas hemispheric flights a week out of Miami International and the efficiency of Ma Bell, Anglos still feel as if they're in the old U.S.
As has been demonstrated, a singular aspect of the Islands is the willingness of its inhabitants to invest in what they believe in.
One of the things they believe in is drinking. Whiling away the hours with a bottle of rum and a lime is a time-honored tradition. As a result, the Islands has perhaps the finest collection of bars of any place in North America. The poet laureate of the Islands, Jimmy Buffett, has written:
I don't know the reason
I stayed here all season
With nothing to show
But this brand new tattoo
But it's a real beauty
A Mexican cutey
How it got here
I haven't a clue.
Wastin' away again
Searchin' for my
Lost shaker of salt
Some people claim
That there's a woman to blame
But I think
Hell it could be my fault.
Kelley's, for example, may be the best bar in North America, period. A little north of the Miami River, when it opens for business in the morning it really opens for business. The front wall, such as it is, opens up, leaving the bar, a roof, and an excellent view of the street.
Kelley's has arguably the most distinguished rock-and-roll juke box anywhere. The first ten selections include Bobby Darin's "Splash-Splash," Jerry Lee Lewis' remake of "Chantilly Lace," Chuck Berry singing "Johnny B. Goode," Bill Haley doing "See You Later, Alligator," Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue," Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again," and the Coasters, with "Yakety Yak." And the whole rest of the box is like that.
The operators of Kelley's, mother and daughter, both named Florence (although daughter often goes by Flossie, just to keep things straight), love to dance. And with music like that, it's not surprising that, around the wee hours, you can find people jitter-bugging on the sidewalk, in the street, and out back by the barbecue pit, illuminated with green, red, white, and yellow lights in the shape of monkeys.
Those too drunk to stand, keep time for the dancers with rattles made out of taped-up empty Schlitz cans loaded with dried peas. I'm firmly of the belief that as long as you don't dance with the wrong person's date, or go out of your way to pick a controversial conversational topic, Kelley's is perfectly safe, no matter what the hour.
My adviser on such things, however, hustled me out of Kelley's pronto one night when he discovered that the Jesus freak on the next stool, wearing a hardhat and busy proselytizing, was also carrying a .357 Magnum in his belt. My friend simply thought it wise not to find out what this gentleman was capable of if he discovered we were infidels.
Guns are so common in the Islands that Tony Senatore claims he doesn't understand why everybody got excited when he started advertising Uzi submachine guns in the Miami Herald. After talking to him for a few hours, I came to think he meant that sincerely.
In Broward County, which is just north of Dade County, just west of an abandoned gas station that is now the Galaxy of Cars Sales and Service, beyond Morgan Concrete Specialties, which is very big on seahorses for your lawn, but on the same side of the street as Park Lane Estates, which is a trailer court, is Senatore's Gun City, Inc.
Tucked away in a nondescript piece of strip development, Gun City is not a very large affair, although it sports such cozy touches as an imitation-leopard-skin couch. Senatore himself has very black receding hair, a mustache, a two-day growth of beard, and maybe only 130 pounds on his tiny frame. He's a real nice guy. Chatty. You find yourself trying to ignore how much his prominent teeth make him look like a dock rat.
He said he knew about the reputation of the Uzi. He knew the Israeli-made weapon was considered the finest small automatic weapon in the world. He knew that U.S. Secret Servicemen guarding the president carried Uzis in preference to United States-made ordnance. He knew this little eight-and-a-half-pound beauty could deliver $12 worth of ammunition over a mile in about five seconds. Hell, that's why he was offering them. He thought they would give his business "a shot in the arm," so to speak. "A real collector's item."
But he thought the business of the television crews showing up to interview him, and his picture being in the paper and all that, was just crazy. Just stupid. For one thing, the Uzis he was offering for $598 were not machine guns. That was a mistake. The wrong picture was submitted with the advertising copy. Actually, his guns were factory-modified carbines. The barrels were a tenth of an inch longer than the sixteen-inch legal minimum, not snub-nose. And they were only semiautomatic. You had to pull the trigger for each shot. They just weren't machine guns. Machine guns were illegal. You could, of course, fire the carbine's twenty-five-round clip manually in well under ten seconds.
Could a clever gunsmith revert them to full automatic? "Not to my knowledge." He grinned sheepishly. Oh, c'mon. "Well, what the hell do you want me to say: 'No comment'?"
Senatore was most upset and confused, he said, about Dade County Public Safety Department homicide detective Gus Ewell's assertions that the guns would go to arm the Cocaine Cowboys.
The Cocaine Cowboys, as they have been locally dubbed, are a sore subject. Also known as "those crazy Colombians," they've started blowing each other away with machine guns on the city streets. For obscure, but drug-related reasons, one of their number, known as "El Loco," is thought to have been connected with the running machine-gun battle conducted by two speeding cars on the Florida Turnpike, the shots whizzing over the heads of passing teenagers. Citizens quietly asleep in their bedroom have waked to the sound of machine-gun slugs coming through their wall from the next apartment, where an execution was in progress. The most brazen incident was the one in which a heavily armored van, which police called a "war wagon," pulled up to a liquor store in a toney suburban mall as unsuspecting shoppers went about their business in their Bermuda shorts, carrying their children. When the machine-gun fire ended, two Latinos were dead, two bystanders wounded, and the Cowboys had made a clean getaway. "This is like Dodge City," commented one detective.
Senatore said that he read only gun books, not newspapers, and he'd never even heard of Cocaine Cowboys until all the fuss started. Besides, he said, he'd made a few phone calls after the dust settled, and he'd found out that that stuff about his Uzis being a status symbol among the drug crowd was just a load of crap. The druggies, he'd been told, do not use Uzis. They use MAC-10 machine guns.
Still honestly professing his injured innocence, Senatore went to serve a customer. If there was any doubt that the patron was a member of the starched-whites yacht crowd, he dispelled it when he asked to be educated about the various powder loads available in .38 caliber pistol ammunition. What he wanted, he said, was something that would go right through a fiber-glass hull. He was rather mysterious about under what circumstances he envisioned putting a small hole into a big boat and it doing anybody any good. But he made no bones about his alarm. He feared that, with the drug trade and all, it was not at all unlikely that someone might approach him on the high seas, kill him, and take his yacht for a run to Colombia. Careful, polite questioning on the part of Senatore and a fat, bald friend of his, who'd just entered the store, revealed that the yachtsman, who was making noises about armor-piercing shells for a handgun, probably had never fired a weapon in his life. But his concern was completely justified.
"What you need," said the fat man, "is a .30-.30 for those armor-piercing shells. Fire it from half a mile away, and you can make the hull ring like a bell. Let 'em know you mean business. Hell, you don't want a pistol. A pistol's only good at close range, and by the time you can see 'em, what you need is a shotgun, not a .38."
The yachtsman, having invested in what he believed in, finally left the shop.
Senatore returned to me. "You know," he said, "a lot of this gun stuff is blown out of proportion. What's a big deal about an Uzi? That's not even the most dangerous gun I've got in the shop. Lookit over here. This is an antique buffalo gun, still works good as new, accurate at a distance of two miles. And here, see this? Look at it. What does it look like? A German Luger? Made right here in the States for the U.S. Army in World War One. I mean, it's so emotional.
"See that gun over there in the corner? It's marked down. Used to sell for ninety-eight dollars. I'll give it to you for forty-nine-fifty, and hell, that's a Carcano."
That's the kind of gun that killed John F. Kennedy.