The Smugglers of Misery

Following, is the introduction to a true story that a former WWII USS Intrepid (CV-11) crew member, Edward (Ed) Coyne, had a major part in. The story was originally published in the April 1970 Reader’s Digest by William Schulz.

“As the nation watches in alarm, young Americans is being victimized by a massive drug-smuggling industry. Here is how it operates – and what is being done to stop it.”

Part 1:

LAST YEAR (1969), smugglers deluged the United States with an estimated 300 tons of illegal drugs, an incredible increase in the traffic of more than 500 % in just three years. The contraband – marijuana, heroin, cocaine amphetamines barbiturates – came in by land sea and air in false-bottom suitcases, in hollower-out surfboards in babies’ diapers. When it was finally sold on the streets it brought the purveyors well over a billion dollars.

Trying to stem the daily flow of drugs across our borders and beaches is the awesome task of federal Customs officials. Their adversaries are a shrewd and tenacious legion, ranging from Mafia dons to respected diplomats, from South American gangsters to European financiers. And the methods they employ are sophisticated and ever-changing. ” One thing is certain,” says Assistant Treasury Secretary Eugene T. Rossides, who directs the government’s efforts against the smugglers. ” Without these highly professional, tightly organized rings of narcotics smugglers, the United States would have little or no drug problem.” Federal Customs Commissioner Myles Ambrose supplies the statistics: 90% of the marijuana used in this country comes from abroad, 100% of the opium, cocaine and heroin, substantial quantities of amphetamines, barbiturates and other synthetic drugs.

How do such vast quantities of dangerous drugs enter the country? What kind of profits do the big-time smugglers reap? What are their ties to organized crime? What is being done to deter these brokers of misery?

Seeking answers to these basic questions, I traveled from Miami to New York, from Tijuana to Montreal, probing the shadowy world of illicit narcotics. To understand this world, it is necessary to look at each drug separately.

Marijuana by the Ton. 80% of the marijuana used in this country originates in Mexico, where peons grow it on small plots, carry it to town by donkey and sell it for perhaps $4 a kilo (2.2 lbs). The marijuana leaves are then packed in one-kilo cellophane packages, and stored until transported up Mexico’s highways to points along the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California borders.

Much of it winds up in Tijuana, the wide-open border town just below San Diego. Because of Tijuana’s heavy international traffic – more than 100,000 people cross the border every day – most of the college students, hippies and others who buy small amounts of marijuana there manage to get through Customs without being caught. Buty they account for only a small percentage of the Mexican marijuana smuggled into this country.

Most of it is brought in by big-money professionals. In his new book, The Smugglers, author Timothy Green tells of a top Tijuana dealer who currently sends two or three years into the United State every day, each carrying more than 300 lbs of “grass” hidden in gas tanks, secret panels or customized upholstery. He buys the marijuana for $12,000 a ton and delivers it in San Diego for $65,000, in Los Angeles for $100,000 and in San Francisco for $200,000. Local pushers then break down the kilo bricks into once bags which sell for $25 to $35, and into individual cigarettes – which usually go for 50 cents to a dollar apiece. Thus a kilo of marijuana purchased originally in Mexico for $4, can bring more than $1,000 once it reaches gic-city slums or college campuses.

Part 2:

Major Tijuana dealers – whose headquarters are sometimes protected by machine-gun-toting guards – supply the entire United States. Tipped off by an informer in September 1967 that a Ford station wagon loaded with marijuana would cross the border at Calexico, Customs officials decide to trail the smugglers. Four days and 3,300 miles later, the couriers pulled into North Bergen, NJ, headquarters of Angel Roberto Millan a Cuban national known as a major New York dealer. Right behind were the men from Customs. They jumped from their cars, grabbed more than a 1/2 ton of marijuana, and arrested Millan and the two couriers, all of whom were convicted in federal court.

Customs agents seized the cars of 1516 smugglers as they crossed the Mexican border last year (1969), but big-time operators use other forms of transportation as well. Yachts and high-speed launches leave Southern California for Ensenada and other Mexican ports, returning with caches of marijuana. Some smugglers rent small planes to bring in the stuff. Customs agents arrested nearly 1,700 of these other marijuana smugglers along the borders of the Southwest last year -“and still the stuff comes in, ” says a weary government official, ” night and day”.

Pill Carriers. Mexico is also the source of millions of goofballs (barbiturates) and bennies (amphetamines) that are sold in school yards throughout the United States. In four years the number of pills seized at the Tijuana checkpoint has increased 70-fold – and beleaguered Customs agents admit they get only a fraction of the illicit cargo.

A typical pill smuggler was Donald Rice, 25 yr old San Franciscan and admitted drug user. In testimony before a Congressional committee, Rice said he started in the business with $25, purchasing stolen pills from employes of a California military depot. As business grew, Rice and his 14-man organization turned to Mexican suppliers. Rice would purchase $3,000 worth of Tijuana bennies an pay a local runner $1,000 to take them across the border, stashed in an automobile gas tank. When sold to San Francisco wholesalers, the pills brought $12,000 – a handsome profit for a weekend’s work.

Investing in Heroin. The really big money, say agents, is made in the hard stuff – cocaine and heroin.

Poverty-stricken Indians cultivate coca bushes on the steppes of the Andes, selling the leaves for pennies a pound. These are broken down to pulp, refined, and smuggled into the United States by Latin American syndicates. By the time its’ cut and recut,  a kilo of cocaine will bring $360,000 in street sales.

Pure cocaine is usually brought into Miami or New York by couriers who fly up from South America carrying false-bottom suitcases or wearing custom-made vest. Last year new York Police arrested a Chilean smuggler who had brought in 44 lbs of cocaine secreted in specially made wine bottles. The courier worked for a Santiago syndicate that smuggled millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine and heroin a year.

Part 3:

The major quantity of the heroin used in the United States originates in the poppy fields of Turkey, where licensed farmers supply raw opium for pharmaceutical purposes. Many of the same farmers also sell to black-market brokers who use mules and camels to transport the sticky, malodorous opium into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. there, in clandestine laboratories, it is converted into a crude morphine, reducing its bulk 90 %,  and is subsequently smuggled by merchant seamen to the south of France. In the area around Marseille, several groups of Corsicans employ skilled scientists to turn the Morphine into heroin. *

* See “Merchants of Heroin,” The Reader’s Digest, August ’68, September ’68

From France the heroin is shipped to the United States, often by circuitous routes through Mexico, South America or Canada. It is carried on tramp steamers and jet planes, in diplomatic pouches and home freezers. By the time it reaches the street, diluted time and again, a kilo of heroin that wholesales for $10,000 may bring more than 1/3 of a million dollars.

U.S. street sales of heroin have been pegged at about $1.5 billion a year. Behind much of this traffic is La Cosa Nostra, whose smuggling and wholesaling profits are estimated at $90 million a year. Says Anthony Scaduto, a top authority on organized crime: “The men of the Mafia are at the top of the pyramid that makes up the international narcotics racket. They ‘invest’ in it with funds from their hidden gambling empires, their loan-sharking and extortion and myriad other rackets. They are the financiers. “They never touch narcotics themselves.

A case in point is John S. Nuccio, a pudgy, manicured racketeer who directed an international heroin operation. Nuccio supplied the money for the drugs – anywhere from $20,000 to $70,000 a trip – to an Air France steward who shuttled back and forth from Paris to New York. Deliveries were made not to Nuccio but to third parties. Apprehended, the steward agreed to cooperate with federal authorities. Only then was it possible to convict Nuccio, who is now serving 15 yrs in prison.

Claims have been made in recent years that La Cosa Nostra is getting out of narcotics to concentrate on less dangerous enterprises. Actually, while the mob is no longer involved in the street-sale stages of heroin distribution, “most of the importation and virtually all of the wholesaling remain in Mafia hands,” according to William T. Tendy, the assistant U.S. Attorney who has prosecuted any of the country’s major drug cases in recent years.

The techniques of heroin importation are varied. A group of French smugglers shipped a 1962 Citroen back and forth between Paris and New York with as much as 246 lbs of heroin hidden in compartments that could be opened only if a certain upholstery button sas twisted. Diplomats, who can move easily through U.S. Customs, are often used as couriers: in fact, envoys from Mexico and Uruguay are currently serving federal prison terms on narcotics charges.

Part 4:

Couriers and Codfish. Some of the most ingenious techniques of all were practiced by a Geneva-based syndicate headed by ex-convicts Andre Hirsch and Robert Mori. Syndicate couriers would board Trans World Airlines flights in one European city, say Frankfurt, and deplane in another, usually London. While aboard, they hid six-kilo lots of heroin (stuffed in men’s socks) behind lavatory waste receptacles. American-based couriers would then board the plane at its first U.S. stop – perhaps New York, perhaps Washington – retrieve the heroin in flight and get off at a second U.S. city, usually Denver or St. Louis. There would be no necessity to go through Customs The couriers would return to New York, contact their buyer and receive $51,000 for each six-kilo load.

The operation worked smoothly for some time, with the U.S. couriers sending back as much as one million dollars a month, usually via secret Swiss bank accounts. Then, in July 1968, a TWA maintenance worker discovered the heroin and alerted Customs The couriers were arrested, as were their U.S. buyers.

But within a month Hirsh had another scheme under way. *

*Mori was arrested by French police as a fugitive in May 1968, extradited to the United States, and convicted of smuggling. He is now appealing his conviction while serving a 30-yr sentence in federal prison.

A 23-year-old Parisian, Christian Serge Hysohion, was dispatched to New York with instructions to set up the Panamanian Chemical and Food Co., Inc., a dummy import firm ostensibly handling Spanish food stuff. Then, in the Spanish port of Malaga, large quantities of heroin were sealed in cans of codfish and paella, and shipped to Hysohion in New York. On December 10, 1968, the S.S. Ragunda sailed with 702 cases of the tins. On January 31, 1969, another 400 cases left aboard the S.S. Grundsunda. In New York, the dope was to be separated from the legitimate foodstuffs and sold to a syndicate contact.

Unknown to Hirsch and Hysohion, however, a globe-girdling investigation by two New York-base Customs agents, Edward (Ed) Coyne and Albert Seeley, had uncovered the operation. When the Ragunda docked in late February, Coyne was on the scene. Using a high-powered X ray, he examined the 700 cases, discovering six in which heroin was secreted.

Coyne and Seeley bided their time. Undercover agents followed the precious shipment as it was delivered on March 7 to Hysohion’s home in Queens and kept up an around-the-clock surveillance. On March 8 an accomplice arrived from Paris and early the next morning the two left, carrying a large leather satchel stuffed with heroin. Hailing a cab, they headed for Grand Central Station to hide the stuff in a public locker. They never made it. Customs agents arrested Hysohion and his partner and seized 62 lbs of heroin. Twenty-four hours later, the Grundsunda docked, and Customs grabbed another 62 lbs of the deadly white powder. Ultimately, more than 30 ring members were arrested, but in less than two years of operation Hirsch and his oterie ha shipped more than 800 lbs of pure heroin into the United States, enough to push tens of thousands of addicts closer to their graves.

Full-Scale Attack. In recent months significant efforts have been launched to do something about the illicit drug traffic into the United States. For instance:

  • Operation Intercept, a program of rigorous border inspection ordered last year, dramatically cut the flow of Mexican drugs, at least temporarily. Operation Intercept, which caused long delays at border checkpoints was followed by Operation Cooperation, a joint U.S.-Mexican drive designed to slash smuggling and also drug production south of the border. Six thousand Mexican soldiers were sent on “search and destroy” missions in areas where marijuana is heavily cultivated. And for the first time, Mexico imposed controls on the sale of amphetamines and barbiturates. New legislation is being drafted b Mexican authorities to punish drug producers and smugglers.
  • A vitally important agreement was reached last January with the French government to curb the illicit processing of heroin in that country. Pressed by Washington, Paris has pledged a stepped-up campaign against drug traffickers, with 10,000 French policemen to be trained in narcotics work.
  • At the insistence of President Nixon, nearly 700 new agents and inspectors are being hired by the woefully under-manned Customs Bureau.
  • Most important, perhaps, the President has declared an all-out war on organized crime. Federal strike forces have been set up in major cities to combat the syndicates that control narcotics and other rackets. The Attorney General has received permission to wiretap major drug traffickers. A comprehensive anti-crime package is moving through Congress.

Administration officials expect no overnight victories. They are taking on immensely powerful, well-entrenched criminal groups. But the government’s full-scale attack is long overdue and deserves the determined support of every citizen.

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