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This Miami Herald article, on the front page of their September 12th, 1988 edition, will

hopefully convey to the reader a strategic view of the interplay between US government
actions and drug traffickers’ shifting behavior. Starting in mid-1985, a shift was
underway in the way cocaine was smuggled into the United States in response to
blanket radar coverage across the Florida peninsula and for hundreds of miles out into
the Caribbean effective against metallic ships and aircraft (small fiberglass boats don’t
normally have the range for a voyage between Colombia and Florida). This is why the
Miami Herald chronicles thus:

“Agents on the lookout for cocaine shipments on commercial vessels”

“Customs agents have been watching for cocaine shipments on
commercial vessels for the past month, O'Brien said. Agents reasoned
that recent Coast Guard and Customs successes in seizing smugglers'
boats coming in from Colombia and the Bahamas would force smugglers
to turn to commercial vessels”, he said.
"We put a real effort into freighters and their cargos," he said.

Miami Herald, The (FL)
October 18, 1986
Section: LOCAL
Edition: FINAL
Page: 2B

To be absolutely clear, this multi-billion dollar, blood-soaked hurricane that descended

upon our peaceful and happy existence, whereby our ships were now suddenly worth
their weight in gold to the ruthless, powerful, and by now desperate drug trafficking
community in our hometown (where it was widely known we were cooperating with US
“authorities” and who had already chased a US Customs informant, stationed to
fictitious duties on board one of our ships, to the doorstep of our house in the middle of
the night where we saved his life), was what caused the destruction of our family;
simple cause and effect. The laws passed by the Congress of the United States, this
penchant for creating black markets, the deadly consequences of which were widely
known in America since Prohibition times and certainly known to the legislature of the
United States, was the first American peril to our peaceful shipping concern. The
hardening of the South Florida peninsula was the triggering factor behind Julio
Zakzuk’s family exile on April 11, 1987, torture on May 16, 1987 (the same night he
arrived in Barranquilla after “sneaking in” through Bogota to try to get some control
of our enterprise), and effective loss of control of our ships. It should have been
apparent to any serious and thoughtful policy makers that cocaine flows were either
bound to find a way to burst through, with tragic consequences as in our case, or fail
because the US coastline extends for thousands of miles and tens of billions of dollars
as a motivating factor logically dictates that cocaine flows would resume through other
parts of the United States, as it, in fact, has done. Pointless from the start just like the
whole “War on Drugs”, if viewed from a humanist perspective.
Herald Staff Writer

Miami Herald - September 12, 1988 - 1A FRONT

The Blue Lightning Operations Command Center, a high-tech war room for tracking
drug-smuggling boats off South Florida, opened in Miami with great fanfare 2 1/2 years
ago. (Editor’s note: opened on Feb. 11, 1986) "This is a bad day for drug smugglers and
a great day for law enforcement," announced U.S. Customs Commissioner William von

With its computer-generated graphics and color radar screens, the $2.2 million center
looked like a drug-war version of the Strategic Air Command. Plugged into a "Picket
Fence" of Air Force early-warning radar balloons, technicians at the center could pinpoint
drug boats 100 miles away and dispatch patrols to intercept them, Customs officials

Only 12 days later, the radars scored their first hit: a freighter unloading 35,000 pounds
of marijuana 60 miles off Marco Island. "Two weeks ago, we couldn't have done it. We
couldn't find them," said Pat O'Brien, the special agent in charge of Customs enforcement
in Miami. "On radar, everybody showed up beautifully."

Soon sleek Blue Lightning boats came to symbolize South Florida's crack drug
interdiction network, the best in the nation. Plans have even been announced for an MGM
movie about Blue Lightning.

The reality is less sparkling. A detailed examination of the Blue Lightning center
demonstrates just how difficult it is to stop drug smuggling, even with the most
sophisticated hardware available.

Geared toward detecting aircraft, the $17 million radar balloons can't successfully track
small boats, especially the needle-nosed Fiberglas speedboats that were the preferred
means of cocaine smuggling during the mid-1980s. This forces Blue Lightning to rely on
$7,000 "hard radars" placed atop condominiums along the coast, thus reducing the
center's effective range from 150 miles to less than 15.

"You can't see far enough ahead of you," O'Brien now concedes. "Because you can only
see what's coming at you over the horizon, everything's a surprise. It changes the scales.
It takes a big clump from our side and puts it on their side."

Without the lead time and weeding-out capabilities that the radar balloons could provide,
more boats and crews are needed to patrol the coast. When the condo radars picked up
targets during the first five months of this year, no law enforcement boats or planes were
available or in position to intercept the suspects 88 percent of the time, according to
Customs statistics.

Amid a blizzard of cocaine, the Blue Lightning center is a definite underachiever,

accounting for less than 4 percent of the 140,000 pounds of cocaine seized by law
enforcement in South Florida in the last two years. The Blue Lightning center statistics
are even less impressive than they seem: They include floating bales and duffel bags and
seizures based on intelligence even when the radars are not involved.

Still, Customs officials argue that the Blue Lightning center has been a successful

"How do you measure success?" asked Gary Grimm, the director of the Blue Lightning
center. "I measure it by what we had before Blue Lightning."


Before Blue Lightning, there was no coordinated attempt to stop drug smuggling in the
waters off South Florida.

"It's better than having nothing," said Leon Guinn, Customs' assistant regional
commissioner for enforcement in the southeastern United States. "Is it cost effective? It's
merely a part of our overall concept. It's a valuable tool and it's one we've utilized. It's
increased our effectiveness."

Guinn and Grimm say the Blue Lightning center's crowning achievement is providing a
secure communications and intelligence network for the Blue Lightning Strike Force -- a
network of 72 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies linked up to combat
smuggling in Florida's coastal waters. Customs has outfitted about 100 of its boats, 100
Coast Guard vessels and 175 state and local boats with $5,000 voice-privacy radios.

"Would we have been able to bring the task force together without the command center?"
Guinn asked rhetorically. "I think not. The radar is a catalyst to bring all those forces

The center does not direct the strike force. It merely furnishes radar information and
intelligence about potential smugglers to strike-force boats in the vicinity.

The Blue Lightning Strike Force has confiscated 39,233 pounds of cocaine and 761,309
pounds of marijuana since January 1986, impressive numbers by any measure. But the
great majority of those seizures came from special operations or random patrols making
visual sightings and did not involve the Blue Lightning center in any significant way.

The center's share of the 2 1/2-year total amounts to 5,472 pounds of cocaine and 126,837
pounds of pot. By comparison, Operation Blue Lightning, the massive U.S.-Bahamian
law enforcement dragnet that served as the genesis for the strike force, seized 6,300
pounds of cocaine in two weeks during April 1985.

"All the pieces have not fit the way we wanted them to," O'Brien said. "The original
concept was excellent. The problem is closing the gap between what was originally put
on the drawing board and what has been delivered."

When it opened on Feb. 11, 1986, the Blue Lightning center was viewed as a
technological breakthrough with potential to change the rules of cocaine smuggling on
the water.

"This is such an incredible increase," Commissioner Von Raab said at the opening. "It's
night and day."

A press release proudly proclaimed that the center "brings the Blue Lightning Strike
Force into the space age of surface detection and communications, with advance
technology matched only by military defense systems." Color brochures of the radar
balloons were handed out to reporters. RCA consultants explained the technology.

From its perch on the 10th floor of the federal building in downtown Miami, the center
would provide unified radar coverage of South Florida waters and join law enforcement
agencies in a single communications network. Transponders in Customs and police boats
would allow the center's radar operators to see instantly law enforcement's resources and
vector them toward suspected smugglers.


Blue Lightning was coming on line just as cocaine traffickers were in the midst of a
major shift in smuggling methods from small planes carrying loads directly into Florida
to small planes "air-dropping" cocaine to waiting speedboats in the Bahamas. By 1986,
private boats were the leading source of cocaine seizures, the great majority of them in
South Florida.

Blue Lightning would meet this threat head-on.

Yet 2 1/2 years later, even though South Florida has the best drug radar coverage in the
United States, the area is glutted with cocaine.

At $14,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), cocaine is now cheaper and more available in Miami
than ever. Six years ago, when the peninsula was virtually wide open for smugglers in
boats and planes, a kilo cost $55,000. More than 70 percent of the cocaine still enters the
country through the South Florida-Caribbean area.

Blue Lightning's woes are the same that bedevil federal drug interdiction efforts
throughout the United States: not enough resources, hardware that doesn't work the way
it's supposed to and smugglers who quickly adapt to law enforcement advances.
The Blue Lightning network now encompasses three radar balloons -- located at Cudjoe
Key in the Florida Keys, Cape Canaveral and Grand Bahama Island -- and 24 radars
placed atop condominiums along the coast from Fort Pierce to Pensacola. A staff of 34 --
13 Customs personnel and 21 RCA technicians and radar operators -- mans the Miami
center on a 24-hour, seven-day basis. The center costs $2.7 million a year to operate.


In the darkened Blue Lightning center, technicians stare at snowy patterns on dark blue
screens, looking for bright white blips. Once a target is sighted, a technician manipulates
the screen, moving a white cross over the suspect and pressing a trigger. A computer
gives the location, time of day, size and speed of the blip.

The operators are looking for small, high-speed boats or vessels traveling through hot

Tracking logs for the radars reveal a system that is overwhelmed by information.

In 1987, the radars made 9,486 sightings of vessels. Of these, 989 were lost by the radars
and 1,427 turned out to be "targets of no interest" -- generally freighters or other large
ships heading into port, according to internal Customs documents obtained by The Miami

The remaining 7,070 blips were considered "pertinent targets" -- suspects that law
enforcement wanted to intercept.

"There is no way of detecting a so-called suspect from mom and pop," Guinn said.
"Radar merely tells you there's a boat out there."

To identify and arrest the smugglers, law enforcement must intercept the targets.

But for 78 percent of the pertinent targets last year, law enforcement boats, planes or
helicopters were either out of position or not available to respond. Law enforcement
intercepted the other 22 percent of the targets -- 1,561, resulting in 38 seizures. Total
amount of cocaine seized: 948 pounds.

In the first five months of 1988, the interception rate dropped to 11.9 percent and the "not
available" and "out of position" rate jumped to 88.1 percent. The result: 22 seizures and
1,422 pounds of cocaine. But 1,284 pounds of that total came after an intelligence check
that did not involve the center's radars.

"Yes, it bothers me," Guinn said of the interception rates. "I would like to hit 100 percent
of the targets."
Part of the reason the intercept rate dropped is that the number of condo radars doubled
during the past two years and the number of boats and crews did not keep pace.

"Sure, we could use better resources," Grimm said. "But you deal with what you've got.
We are not the Department of Defense."

The center's intercept rate jumped to 39 percent in July after a management decision to
stop tracking targets on radars where no patrols were available to intercept, Guinn said.

"If I don't have a boat up and operating in a particular area and there is no asset available,
then there is no reason to watch the radar scope there," Guinn said.

Rather than "watching the whole world," Guinn said, the center concentrates on giving
support to law enforcement operations on the water.

Customs officials credit their marine base at Cat Cay in the Bahamas with shutting down
speedboat runs between Bimini and South Florida and lowering the Blue Lightning
center's seizure stats. After the base opened in April 1987, the yearly amount of cocaine
seized in the area dropped to 34 pounds, O'Brien said.

"Does that make us ineffective?" Guinn asked. "The answer to that has got to be 'no,'
because deterrence is part of our mission."

Diverted from Bimini, more smuggling boats are turning up in the Cay Sal Banks off the


The ineffectiveness of the radar balloons aggravates the problem of separating the
innocent boater from the smuggler.

Floating at 10,000 feet, the balloons provide 150 miles worth of coverage in every

When the Blue Lightning center was designed, expensive computer software was written
so the center could use data from the balloons, which at $15 million to $20 million apiece
and $4 million a year to maintain were supposed to form the backbone of the Blue
Lightning radar network. The center's computers were also supposed to track targets
generated by the balloons. But neither the balloons nor the computers have performed as

If the balloons worked, they would greatly enhance Blue Lightning's sorting abilities,
separating out boats coming over from the Bahamas and reducing the number of Customs
boats needed to intercept them.
The balloons must be brought down in bad weather and require heavy maintenance. They
were down more than half the time in 1986. The operating time had improved to 65.5
percent by the first five months of this year, but the balloons have proved so unreliable
that their use against boats has steadily declined.

An official at Blue Lightning said the center does not keep tracking statistics for the
balloons because they are not used "religiously" to track targets.

According to internal Customs documents reviewed by The Herald, the balloons

produced 191 sightings in 1987, compared to more than 9,000 for the condo radars. Of
the balloon sightings, 94 were lost and 43 were intercepted. Only four of the intercepts
resulted in seizures. A total of 920 pounds of cocaine and 10,400 pounds of marijuana
were seized.

The figures declined still further in the first five months of 1988 to 36 sightings, with 23
lost tracks and a mere three intercepts resulting in one seizure of a boat and no drugs

In a five-week stretch beginning May 8 and ending June 11, the balloons did not register
a single sighting.


The problem is the balloons were meant to track aircraft, not boats.

"The Cudjoe system (the radar balloon in the Keys) is not consistently finding smaller,
nonmetallic-type vessels, particularly when they're traveling through waves," a Customs
internal report stated.

The balloons were put up in the early 1970s after existing air defense radars failed to
detect a Cuban defector in a MiG-17 in time for Air Force jets to intercept it. The MiG
wasn't identified until it tipped its wings at the control tower of Homestead Air Force
Base. The MiG landed within walking distance of Air Force One, which was being
refueled for the departure of then-President Richard Nixon from his Key Biscayne retreat.

The balloons are effective at picking up low-flying aircraft, said Roger Garland, chief of
Customs' Miami Air Branch at Homestead. "We have the best radar coverage in the
country right here in South Florida," Garland said.

Boats are a different story.

"It's very difficult to take a radar that's engineered toward aircraft and turn a switch and
make it effective against marine," Grimm said. "It takes a lot of research and
development, and we're doing that."
With the long-range balloons so ineffective, the Blue Lightning center is forced to fall
back on the short-range Furuno radars placed atop condominiums. Originally meant to
serve merely as back-up for the balloons, the condo radars have become the first line of
defense for Blue Lightning.

The condo radars produce more targets than the system can handle.

Last year Senate investigators in hearings on drug interdiction questioned the

effectiveness of the condo radars, noting that the radars had tracked 4,214 vessels during
a six- month period and produced only 12 seizures.

The investigators asked if cost effectiveness studies had been done on the condo radars or
the Blue Lightning concept itself.

No, Customs responded, "because of the immediate need to centralize communication,

command and operational control of the Blue Lightning Strike Force resources."

The condo radars' effectiveness is hampered by their extremely limited range.

A typical fast smuggling boat -- like a 39-foot Midnight Express -- can be tracked only 10
miles away, according to Customs documents obtained by The Herald. That's hardly
enough time to scramble for an intercept: 20 minutes after it's spotted, a fast boat could
be docked and unloading.

Customs officials responded that the range of the condo radars is 12 to 17 miles.

"While not creating an impenetrable detection curtain with condo radars, we have
provided a credible risk for the smuggler to encounter while at the same time allowing us
to control our marine assets on the water," Customs said.

Grimm said Customs has made several improvements to the condo radars and recently
installed three or four with a slightly longer range at a cost of $20,000 apiece.


Despite the difficulties, the Blue Lightning concept is being expanded.

"We are actively working to extend these successful concepts to the Southwest and Gulf
Coast," von Raab told a Senate subcommittee.

The Miami Blue Lightning center will move to new digs at the end of this year in
Richmond Heights in South Dade, and become part of a new command post to be called
the "Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence center" -- C3I for short.

The C3I will combine the marine operations of the Blue Lightning center with Customs
air operations currently based in the FAA tower at Miami International Airport. The C3I
in South Florida will be part of a $41 million network that will include centers in
Riverside, Calif., and Oklahoma City.

Grimm said the C3I system will improve intelligence and correct some of the problems
that beset the Blue Lightning center. "We have taken our test-bed ideas and experiments
and put a lot of that into the C3I concept," Grimm said.

But the C3I will depend on the same flawed radar network that Blue Lightning does.

The last Blue Lightning seizure involving a radar balloon occurred when the Cudjoe Key
radar sighted three vessels coming in from Cuba on Feb. 3. The Customs Key Largo
office intercepted one of the boats, but the bales of marijuana had been thrown overboard
and the suspects had to be released.

The last condo radar seizure occurred on June 20, when the center tracked a target
approaching the Keys. The Key Largo Customs decided to "respond via land unit" since
the target was so close to shore. The target was tracked to Carysfort Marina, "where it
remained for approximately 30 minutes before heading outbound," according to a
Customs report.

The Blue Lightning center directed the Key Largo officers to the marina, where they
seized more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana. But they made no arrests. And the
marijuana boat escaped.

"Even though the boat got away, the radar did its job and (the Blue Lightning center) did
its job," Grimm said. "Even though we didn't have any assets available, we managed to
get people out of bed and they got down there. The boat got away, but we got the

Illustration:photo: radar screen, Blue Lightning Command Center,

Jane Tawney (CUSTOMS), logo (n)