In my 30 years experience smuggling weed, I certainly worked operations where police protection was paid off and even some that were run by the cops, but I always preferred the slicker scams. I enjoyed playing the ?Cat and Mouse? game, I think even more than the money and almost as much as the weed. Fortunately for me, the few times over those years when I was actually caught in the trap, I had enough money to pay big-time attorneys who arranged for large contributions on my behalf in order to appease justice. On a few occasions, though, when I was neither slick enough nor rich enough, I managed to slip the clamp thanks to the kindness of Angels.
Growing up on Florida?s Gulf Coast with a childhood steeped in fantasies of swashbuckling pirates, I guess it was natural I?d end up in the smuggling business. My first jobs were unloading bales of Colombian red and gold-bud in 1976 from shrimp boats that hauled about 50,000 pounds. I got paid $5,000 dollars for working all night running bales down the dock and loading them into waiting vans. I got the nickname ?El Jefe? from the Colombians on the shrimp boat. No one uses real names in the smuggling world, and my alias meant ?The Chief? in Spanish, mocking both my young age and inexperience in the trade. ?Chipper? was the guy who put me to work, and my smuggling confreres were nicknamed Coyote, Country, Snake, and The Old Man. You didn?t know their real names but trusted them with your life, money, and future.
I found work in exotic little port towns like Sopchope, Chuckaluski, and Everglade City. The local authorities were always paid off and standing watch, so it didn?t seem too risky. Though bucking bales was certainly hard work, at age 17 I couldn?t imagine a better way to make a living. In the 1960?s and 70?s, smugglers were popular people in the US. All smugglers used their treasure to greatly enrich their coastal communities, whether it was Colombia, Mexico, or Florida smuggling organizations. Violence was very rare, and in the weed smuggling world we took pride in our work. We could never understand the penalties that existed then: two, five, ten years for bringing in tons of great pot. The penalties today in 2006 are insanely worse. Smuggle in a few tons and you get life without parole in much of the US.
Jimmy Carter?s administration went from favoring decriminalization in 1976 to a hard-line prohibitionist war on marijuana trade routes in 1978. Then the US launched an official War on Drugs, and that included marijuana ? much to our surprise. Paraquat eradication of Colombian fields, Coast Guard intercepts and Federal prosecutions for many of Florida?s finest law enforcement officials brought an early end to my newfound livelihood. Fortunately, I had managed to save enough money to spend a nice vacation in Jamaica, which soon led to bigger and better things. It was on the Island that I first learned to obey rule #3.
With Colombian connections shut down, Jamaica was soon to become the next latest and greatest thing. It was a short flight for low-flying small engine planes; the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Michael Manley, had pretty much granted legal autonomy to smugglers; and Jamaican farmers had just caught on to a technique popularized by California outdoor growers, sinsemilla, or ?sinsee? in Jamaica. We started out flying to and from Montego Bay International Airport. It was so easy in those days, like straight up business with quick access to all resources, including official aide. There was one week when I saw literally 10 to 15 small planes a day loading and heading for Florida. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister was soon ousted with a little help from the CIA and it all got tougher. Safe landing strips were difficult to find. Aviation fuel, spare parts, and equipment were almost unobtainable. I became a full-time Island resident in order to run ground logistics. Besides just changing currency and buying ganja, I now had to locate strips, and then scrounge or smuggle in fuel and equipment.
One pre-dawn morning in West Moreland Province, in 1981, I was flying with our pilot onto our remote grass strip illuminated with burning tires. The strip had a couple of nasty dips, forcing the pilot to make three passes before he was confident enough to set down. Freaked out by the less than stealthy landing, the pilot was extra antsy. I tried to calm him while one crew of guys loaded ganja and another took turns operating a hand pump refueling the plane from barrels. Suddenly, the hand pump blew a gasket and the only option was to lift the barrels and try to pour as much as possible into the tanks. It took several guys on each barrel and seemingly several hours. We could only hope that, after spillage, we got enough fuel in for the return flight.
Just as we were emptying our last barrel, the sun was beginning to peek over the mountains and I thought we were home free. Then, out of nowhere, some guy comes running towards us yelling. As he approached, we saw he was waving a cheesy little American flag and yelling, ?Take me with you!? The pilot cranked up and was off right away. As we were dealing with the wannabe stowaway situation, someone noticed a large caravan of police and army vehicles heading up the hill towards us. Everyone separated and scrambled into the nearby sugar cane fields. I ran, wandered and crawled my way through the fields down the hill, found the road and could see the flashing lights of the police blockade.
It would have been one thing if I could have passed for a local heading to work out there, but a white guy in a Jamaican sugar cane field sticks out like an old dog?s balls. As I lay hunkered in a ditch next to the road, imagining how bad a Caribbean prison could be, I heard the squeaking brakes of a very large vehicle. My first thought was ?I?m doomed, it?s a tank,? but then I was overcome with the smell of garbage and a very dirty stranger extended his hand. He said ?Cumo?in Sir, me guana taik ya from dem Babylon!?
This Guardian Angel was a Jamaican garbage truck driver who had apparently seen the whole thing go down while dropping off his first load at the dump across the hill. He and his truck could pass through the roadblock without suspicion, so he instructed me to hide inside the compaction shoot on the back of the truck. I never thought garbage could smell as sweet as it did on that ride to freedom.
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With the entry of the Navy into the War on Drugs, flying AWAC (Airborne Warning and Control System) planes that could easily track small planes and direct F-15s for intercept, the Jamaica flight corridor was effectively closed by 1982. With air and sea routes cut off by the Big Cats, we Mice soon began exploiting overland smuggling from Mexico through connection hubs in the Southwestern US. Mexican farmers had by then imported Indica seeds, improving genetics while perfecting their invention, sinsemilla. The weed was generally better in 1983 than even the best Jamaican. We smuggled hundreds of pounds at a time back to Florida packed in campers and RVs bound from West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Life was great until the Cat got drug dogs on the highways and the Courts began handing out search warrants at the wag of a tail. Never to be out done and always one step ahead, we Mice then went into the airfreight shipping business. One of our best ideas, in 1986, was shipping bricks of weed packed into large blocks of frozen vegetables transported in freezer boxes with dry ice. This seemed perfect, and because it was perishables, overnight air cargo made a lot of sense.
One morning I arrived at the air cargo terminal of Tampa International Airport to arrange local delivery for my latest shipment from El Paso. I had been doing this on a bi-weekly basis for about a month. As I was walking toward the office, a delivery truck, heading out from the back, suddenly swerved towards me. I was speechless when the kid driving the truck jumped out and asked, ?Aren?t you the guy here for those frozen veggies from El Paso?? While I murmured and stuttered, he interrupted with, ?Dude, they found your shit! There?s FBI all over in there waiting on you! Get in my truck.? Since I recognized this Angel?s words, I didn?t hesitate in diving onto the floorboard of his cab. I still don?t know how they busted that scam ? maybe they checked out one of the bogus addresses that we used. All I do know is, thanks to another Guardian Angel, I made it out of that airport with the Cat still holding the bag.
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While smuggling routes and smugglers were being steadily crimped off by technology, dogs, and attrition, the renaissance of marijuana cultivation was ushered in with the innovation of indoor gardening under high intensity lights. For a long-time smuggler like me though, indoor growing seemed like too much risk for a relatively miniscule return on investment so I figured my career was finally over. And, though I had by then been mentioned in more than a few grand jury investigations, I had managed to retire pretty much none the worse for wear ? short of a few days in jails and a few years of probation. Of course I continued to enjoy herb. The new high potency Dutch indoor hybrids led me to sniff out and befriend several of the young kids growing the dank. They were always amused by my stories from ?back in the day?.
One haze filled afternoon, this kid approached me with a question as to how I would suggest smuggling back a lot of seeds from Amsterdam. I told him that I would show him a foolproof method if he?d pay for my flight ticket there. He agreed and I went on to explain how I knew a guy working for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) over in Germany and that if we put the seeds in a hollowed out book, he could mail it back for me through the embassy mail. The next thing I knew we were in Holland. In the course of our seed shopping, we somehow garnered an invite to seed breeder Soma?s place. When I met with Soma, we realized we were already acquainted from a long time ago, when Gainesville, Florida was not only the North American distribution hub for killer ?C-Bo? (Columbian weed), but also the birthplace of domestically cultivated outdoor Indica. It was certainly joyous becoming re-acquainted, and it only served to enlarge my myth in the eyes of my young grower friends. We packed up the seeds in a book and I brought it to my friend in Germany. Also, having fallen so in love with the hash over there, I flattened a couple of grams between the pages. When we got back to the US, the book with the seeds and a couple of grams of awesome Nepali Cream arrived at my house without any problems. While I was enjoying my hash and my friends were expanding their grow project, I was hit with a great idea. Maybe it wasn?t quite time for me to give up my swashbuckling ways after all.
I was soon making several round trips to Amsterdam mailing back books containing a kilo each of Manali and Nepali Creams. This was so good it just couldn?t be bad. I was enjoying the company of an old friend in Amsterdam and getting to smoke more high quality hash than most North Americans have ever seen. Then, while back in the States waiting on my latest book, I read in the morning paper about the wife of US Air Force Colonel James Hiett stationed in Colombia fighting the Drug War. The wife had just been arrested after a random search of Embassy mail turned up a few kilos of cocaine, which she had apparently been sending to Miami on a regular basis for a couple of years. The article left me with a funny taste in my mouth, but I figured it was just the hash in my tea.
A couple of days later, I was called out of town on short notice. Even though I was expecting the mail, I didn?t really feel nervous about leaving as I figured the package would be waiting for me when I got back. I returned home after five days and was concerned when I realized the book had not arrived. Then I went to check my phone messages. The tape was completely filled ? I had received calls approximately every 30 minutes, literally around the clock for the past four days. All of the messages were hang-ups, except for two that contained a voice I didn?t recognize saying ?Pick up the phone! Please pick up the phone! You?ve got to pick up the phone!? As I was listening, the phone rang and I grabbed it. On the line was the same voice, calling me by name but explaining that I didn?t know him. He said that he didn?t want to be involved, but that I should know that he was on my side in the War. He went on to tell me of how he scanned cellular phone transmissions for a hobby. He had overheard some DEA agents talking on cell phones about getting a search warrant for my house based upon an intercepted shipment of hashish from Europe. It turns out that cell phone monitoring is quite easy and completely legal for anyone to pursue. Thankfully, this was another Guardian Angel who, after hearing my name in the DEA conversations, looked it up in the phone directory then called my number around the clock for five days until he could tip me off. I immediately cleaned out my house and went to stay with a friend for a few days. We made a few drive-by recons, noticing the package had been delivered and sat on the doorstep for six days. Then it disappeared.
When I finally went home a few weeks later, there were several messages from the local police asking me to come down and talk over some things. Following my attorney?s directions, I ignored the calls and moved to a new residence while my lawyers checked daily for warrants. No charges were ever filed and it all just went away. Finally, with three very close calls ? three times lucky ? I am forever retired from the smuggling business.
How We Did It
Shipping Columbian Cannabis
I set out at midnight with a young man for an historic commercial fishing pier in the little town of Caribou. I freaked out as we pulled down to the dock and went past the local Sheriff and a couple of his deputies, but the kid who had offered me this work quickly explained everything was cool, and outlined my job.
I was to run as fast as I could down the dock to the boat, load up as many bales as possible on a 4-wheel dock cart (hand truck), run it all back down the dock to the parking lot, throw each bale onto a scale, mark gross weight on outside of wrap, record in a ledger and assist ?friends? with loading the bales into their vehicles. The boat was an old 140-foot shrimp trawler with Panamanian Registry, bound from Santa Martha, Colombia. The hold of the trawler carried about 50,000 pounds of weed packed in bales with rough dimensions of one meter by 0.7m by 0.7m (approx. 3.5 feet by 2.5ft. by 2.5ft.) and weighing between 40 and 60 pounds each. The pot was mostly what we called good ?Mersh?, meaning high quality commercial Colombian (or ?C-Bo?). Amongst the load there were also quite a few hidden treasures; bales with pure Oro, Colombian Gold, or Punta Roja ? Colombian Red Bud. I had a box cutter to slice open the corner of each bale and check for quality, so I could stash back my favorites. I helped load vehicles ranging from the grand old Lincolns with the big trunks, to a tractor-trailer grain hopper rig. We wedged eight tons of bales into the grain hopper then topped it off with feed grain.
Everything was on ?front? (credit). No cash was exchanged at the dock. Friends were simply expected to return in a week or two with the wrap for calculating tare weight and the cash to pay for the net weight. The Colombians, bosses and crew would spend a nice vacation in Florida and wait to get paid. The boss used to boast that it was the only real honest business on earth. Guns were never seen or discussed ? this was just a bunch of young hippy boys spreading good weed and sharing a bit of the wealth with some depressed local fishing villages. I worked unloading trawlers up and down the Gulf Coast for more than year in little ports like Steinhatchee, Sopchopee and Chucaluskee. It really seemed a noble calling at the time. We didn?t even think of pot as a drug. That is, until President Carter?s pro-decriminalization administration turned full circle to lump pot as the easiest target in the War on Drugs. This garnered easy establishment points for a failing administration entering the second half of Carter?s term.
Beginning in 1978, US troops started spraying Colombian pot fields with Paraquat; the US Coast Guard began open-seas intercepts; several of Florida?s County Sheriffs were prosecuted federally; and the Colombian shrimp boat trade soon dried up. Though I had been spending money like a drunken sailor, I still had enough left to lick my wounds with an extended vacation in Jamaica. The rest of the boys started flying in DC-6 twin-engine prop planes loaded with bales of C-Bo, which were kicked out of the plane while flying low over the Everglades. Awaiting powerboats would shuttle the bales down the Shark and Harney Rivers for offloading into vehicles. The next time we spoke, I heard they had lost two loads ? pilots, planes and all. They were treetop flying and probably went down in some remote Costa Rican rain forest. This explains why they quickly fell in love with my plan to fly small planes over the puddle hop from Jamaica.
Flying in with Jamaican Ganja
Since 1978 we had been using a single engine four-seat Cessna, flying directly from Montego International Airport in Jamaica across Cuba, to Florida?s Gulf Coast. But in 1980 we were faced with a much more daunting operation with the increase in enforcement.Instead of a fourseat Cessna ? because we could no longer fly across Cuba ? we had to start flying a more powerful six-seat Piper. With all the new space we had enough room for the ganja and an auxiliary fuel bladder for the new longer flight. There were two air paths available: the long, low and slow route around Cuba and across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida?s Panhandle; or island-hopping up through the Northern Bahamas and darting low across the middle of Florida?s Peninsula.
We thought we could use a landing strip at an abandoned sugar cane process plant. It was a long paved runway with lights, situated on a lazy plateau about 10 miles inland from the South Coast in Westmoreland Province. The only hitch: it was totally under control of the local police authority. This would cost a bit of money to work around, but the police could provide fueling trucks and radio communications. At the time, aviation fuel was practically impossible to get, making it really difficult to re-fuel trucks and radios. So I authorized a $25,000 payment to the police. Then, two days before our run the cops came back demanding another $50,000 ?or the deal is off?. I saw where this was going, so I said ?No Deal!? I needed to figure out my next move quick ? I had already stored all the ganja in Westmoreland so we really needed another local strip. But now the local cops knew pretty much what I was planning and they were out for revenge.
Tight on time (and followed the whole way) we scrambled to find another strip and soon settled for a site that left a lot to be desired. It was on an old colonial plantation estate and the caretaker was an 80-year old gentleman who was born there and had not seen an owner?s visit for at least a generation. The strip was apparently used primarily in the 1930?s for recreational flying and had been well manicured, but it had some major whoop-de-do dips and, of course, no runway lights. It would be very tough to see because it was perched on a pretty overgrown cliff about 100 feet above the ocean. Fortunately, it was very close to the ganja stash, and the caretaker only wanted $1,000 for us to use it. I just had to work out fuel and radios. Because there was a complete clamp on aviation fuel in Jamaica, I arranged to smuggle fuel in barrels from Grand Cayman Island, just a short 180-mile run northwest where just about anything could be bought if you had enough money. With the fuel secured, I flew back to Miami on a commercial jet to buy some electronics, then smuggled the radio parts back into Jamaica in a big hollowed out boom box and reassembled the rig down on the Island. All that was left to do was gather a bunch of old tires to burn for runway signal fires.
We made four successful trips out of that field carrying 400 to 600 pounds of loose press top grade Jamaican ganja each trip. Eventually, though, our pilot grew wary of our not so well maintained plane. He decided the ?island hop? route would be safer than the long open water route around the Western tip of Cuba, but on the first trip up through the Northern Bahamas, AWAC radar planes picked off the plane. The pilot was forced to land by a couple of F-15s and escorted to Jacksonville Naval Air station for a meeting with Federal Marshals.
Moving Mexican Marijuana
Like most scams when they?re new, driving loads of Mexican Sinsemilla across Interstate-10 from Texas to Florida seemed like a stroll through the park in 1983. Soon though, road-blocks were on all roads leaving the Mexican border for a 200-mile radius within the US. Land routes from Mexico through the Southwestern U.S. were effectively closed by 1987, and once again strategies had to change in order to remain one step ahead.
El Paso, Texas is a major hub for all sorts of fresh produce from Mexico, not just weed. The fruits and vegetables are typically irradiated before crossing the border, and then flash frozen at big processing plants in Texas for distribution throughout the US. We figured distribution of frozen Mexican produce could be successful so we printed up fake business cards and bought a couple of box trucks and 40-cubic-feet freezer chests. The company name was Sunshine Frozen Foods: ?Produce so fresh, tastes like Frozen Sunshine? was stenciled on the trucks and freezers. We?d buy several large 40-pound blocks of frozen veggies from the processor, pick them up with the company trucks and pack the company freezers. The blocks of frozen produce were taken to a garage we rented, where we cored them with an improvised hand drill. The holes were then filled with 20 to 30 one-kilo wrapped bricks of manicured sweet Mexican sinsemilla each, plugged with the frozen blocks that had been removed, then re-packed into the freezer chests with dry ice. Then, we would simply drive our company trucks to the loading dock at American Airlines Air Freight at El Paso International Airport and over-night four sealed freezer chests to Tampa, Florida, full of produce and each holding 80 to 120 pounds of weed.
In order to insulate the paper trail from the airline, we always used bogus addresses for both shipper and receiver. So, my job was to show up bright and early at the American Air Freight office in Tampa. Before anyone could even think about contacting the receiver for delivery instructions and certainly before there was much time to inspect any shipment, I was there in suit and tie arranging for third party delivery. This way, even if the load got busted, there would be no way to trace anything back to our stash houses on either end. The only time there was a real risk of arrest was during the few minutes that I spent in the offices filling out paper work.
Though one shipment was eventually busted in the end, nobody got arrested thanks in part to this diligent deception. To this day, the FBI is probably still wondering where that frozen weed came from, and where it was meant to go.