On the night of September 15, special agents from the US Department of Homeland Security were surveilling a shipyard on the Miami River where the cargo vessel Ana Cecilia had docked after returning from Haiti. They watched an unidentified man load two cardboard boxes from the Ana Cecilia into the backseat of a white Nissan Altima driven by a man named Terry Pierre Louis, according to a federal criminal complaint in Miami.
Police vehicles, blue lights flashing and sirens wailing, blocked the Altima's path as Louis pulled out of the shipyard. The 39-year-old Haitian American jumped out of the Nissan and ran back inside the shipyard, ignoring the agents' commands for him to stop, the complaint states.
Although the Homeland Security officers, border agents, and other cops didn't catch him, they did find 136 kilograms of cocaine in brick-shaped packages inside the boxes. They also arrested Ernso Borgella, the captain and owner of the Ana Cecilia, who promptly confessed to knowing the drugs were on board, according to the feds.
The incident is one of several that that have put a spotlight on new law enforcement efforts to curb the flow of cocaine from Haiti to Miami. Taken together, recent busts suggest the port of entry that once served as a hub of violent drug activity during the 80s heyday of the "Cocaine Cowboys" is back at the center of the regional drug trade.
Robert Hutchinson, acting special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in Miami, told VICE that he could not comment on specific cases because of ongoing investigations. However, he affirmed that there's been a dramatic increase in coke seizures on container ships coming from Haiti to the Miami River in the past year.
"There's definitely been a surge and it appears to be on the rise through the Miami River," Hutchinson said. "It's very hard to tell if we are just pushing the bubble from one area to another."
On November 10, Haitian anti-drug police officers arrested Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores, in a Port au Prince hotel, turning them over to special agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Venezuelans were flown to Manhattan, where the on November 12 both were charged with one count of conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine. According to Spanish-language media reports, Flores de Freitas and Campo Flores had arrived in Haiti aboard a plane loaded with 800 kilos of cocaine that was flown by a Venezuelan military pilot.
Prior to their arrests, Homeland Security had intercepted more than 500 kilos combined on four container ships, including the Ana Cecilia, arriving at the Miami River from Haiti between March and September of this year, Hutchinson said. Those discoveries resulted in indictments against Louis, Borgella, and Hector Genaro Levy, the 65-year-old Nicaraguan captain of a cargo ship called Gulf Trader who was busted in August with 59 kilos in his shipyard office and his boat cabin. Levy and the Gulf Trader had just returned from the port city Cap Haitien in Haiti.
Borgella pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine on November 19. Louis—who documented his relief missions to Haiti alongside celebrities Sean Penn and Wyclef Jean on his social media accounts—took his chances with a jury. On December 9, after a two-day trial, Louis was found guilty on one count of conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine and one count of cocaine trafficking. (All the defendants are currently awaiting sentencing.)
However, authorities have yet to make any arrests in the March 23 discovery of 361 kilos hidden aboard the Eva, a 180-foot cargo vessel moored at a Miami River shipyard, a Homeland Security spokesman confirmed.
Hutchinson said drug traffickers are taking extraordinary measures to hide coke shipments aboard cargo vessels docking at the Miami River. "People are going the extra mile to make sure we don't find it," Hutchinson told me. "Since often these ships are coming back empty, they have to do a little more to conceal what is coming into the country."
According to a US Customs and Border Protection press release, officers broke through a layer of concrete to get to a hidden compartment in the Eva's ballast tank that contained 310 packages of cocaine worth more than $9 million.
The criminal complaint against Borgella states that he sketched out a diagram of a secret compartment inside the Ana Cecilia where Homeland Security investigators found an additional 275 bricks of cocaine.
In the 80s, the Miami River thrived as a port of call for Colombian and Cuban cocaine traffickers. So much Andean marching powder sailed down the Miami River, even cops couldn't resist taking the illegal drug shipments for themselves. In 1985, three Miami police officers were arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the drownings of three suspected drug dealers. They had jumped into the river to avoid being captured by the cops, who had shown up to rip off 300 to 400 kilos of cocaine. The bust led to a wide-ranging corruption probe that culminated in the conviction of 20 Miami officers, including the trio involved in the Miami River rip-off.
Almost two decades later, drug traffickers began using cargo ships traveling to and from Haiti to bring large coke shipments into the Miami River. Wrecked by decades of political upheaval and unrelenting poverty, Haiti lacks the police and military resources to patrol the country's coastline, let alone be able to infiltrate narco groups, according to the US Institute of Peace, a think tank once funded by the American government.
A July 2000 New York Times story detailed how US customs officials confiscated almost 7,000 pounds of cocaine inside Haitian ships docked in the Miami River during a ten month span, which was three times the amount of blow intercepted the previous year. Since then, cocaine trafficking between Haiti and the Miami River has gone through peaks and valleys.
Caribbean routes like that between Haiti and the Miami River are currently experiencing an upswing, according to US drug warriors. The 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Report put out by the DEA says drug trafficking through the Caribbean has increased in the last three years. "By moving cocaine through the Caribbean, Colombian [transnational criminal organizations] avoid inter-cartel violence in Mexico, increased law enforcement presence in Mexico and at the Southwest Border, and rising pressure against the Mexican drug cartels," the report states.
According to the White House's Office of National Drug Policy, Haiti is one of the major illegal drug transit nations in the world—despite efforts by the government to enhance the country's police capabilities to combat narcotics trafficking, as well as passage of a law last year that formally criminalized corruption committed by government officials.
Andre Pierre, a Haitian-American criminal defense lawyer who represents Borgella and Levy, told VICE that drug traffickers recruit captains and crew members of ships that travel from the Miami River to Haiti laden with second-hand and donated goods.
"If you need to send a mattress, a car, or any bulky items, that is how people send stuff back home," Pierre said. "But the ships come back pretty much empty. Traffickers take advantage of that."
For instance, Levy had been a captain for almost 20 years, sailing through Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic without ever breaking the law, Pierre told me. "He had an impeccable record," Pierre said. "Things fell hard for him and he made a huge mistake."
On October 21, Levy pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit cocaine trafficking. According to an affidavit filed in Miami federal court, Levy admitted to hiding 59 kilos in the ceiling of his cabin and under his bunk. When the Gulf Trader arrived at its Miami River shipyard, Levy had unloaded four of the bricks when Homeland Security agents approached him, the affidavit states.
Pierre said Levy told investigators that he did not know the real identities of the drug traffickers who hired him. "He doesn't know who the bigger people involved are," Pierre told me. "He was dealing with a middleman to a middleman."
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter.