Drug runners aboard speed boats are smuggling millions of dollars worth of contraband from the Caribbean islands to the Florida coast, and federal authorities are developing new technology to try to catch them.

Under cover of night, speed boats sneak into Florida coves and inlets, hauling bundles of marijuana and cocaine.

Drugs wash up on shore. Radar aircraft hover, searching for smugglers. And beachgoers stumble onto abandoned bundles of contraband.

Like a flashback to the cocaine-cowboy days of the 1980s, drug running is making a comeback in Florida, and federal authorities are harnessing new technology to try to catch the smugglers.


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Infighting among drug cartels and intense enforcement in Mexico have prompted traffickers to shift some smuggling routes from the Southwest border to the Caribbean, federal investigators say. The increased traffic has revived the speedboat runs from the Bahamas to South Florida and supplied a pipeline of illegal drugs from Puerto Rico to Central Florida.

"Some old [smuggling] routes appear to be reviving, including ones that lead directly into Florida," Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, warned a Senate panel last month.

Kelly cited "a 483 percent increase in cocaine washing up on Florida's shores in 2013 compared to 2012," based on figures from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

The washed-up drugs include 112 pounds of marijuana and 77 pounds of cocaine — abandoned contraband that was found along the coast and reported to authorities during the last fiscal year, according to federal officials.

Enforcement agencies say the shifting routes provide a steady flow of illegal shipments into Florida, though not nearly on the same scale as the drug trade of the 1980s.

In that era, dealers brazenly brought baskets full of cash into Miami banks to launder their proceeds. South Florida was the main pathway for cocaine shipments from Colombia, and gunbattles over control of its distribution made Miami the murder capital of the nation in 1984.

But an enforcement crackdown — popularized by the TV show "Miami Vice" — disrupted the trade and pushed smuggling routes elsewhere, mostly west to California and along the Mexican border.

Now that enforcement has intensified in the West, some of that trade has moved east again to Central America and the Caribbean, enforcement officials say. They are expanding enforcement abroad, in cooperation with Colombia and other nations, to try to stop the flow before it gets near Florida.

In Florida, marijuana seizures more than doubled and cocaine seizures nearly tripled in fiscal 2013 compared with the previous year, reaching 26,823 pounds of marijuana and 12,876 pounds of cocaine, according to Customs officials.

But Kelly estimated that 70 percent to 80 percent of contraband still gets through the enforcement net. Most of it goes to Europe, West Africa and cities along the Eastern Seaboard, and some of it ends up in Florida.

A State Department report last month said smugglers bring large shipments from Colombia to the Bahamas and other islands and split them into smaller loads.

"Traffickers move cocaine through the Bahamas via 'go-fast' boats, small commercial freighters, maritime shipping containers and small aircraft," the report stated. "Small sport fishing vessels and pleasure craft move cocaine from the Bahamas to Florida by blending in with legitimate traffic that transit these areas."

For several years, smugglers also have been stuffing drugs into submarines or semi-submersible vessels that ride low in the water to avoid detection. Several have been seized along the Florida coast.

"The shift went from airdrops to the go-fast boats," said Vito Guarino, special agent in charge of the Caribbean Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "It's usually 48 hours. They don't go direct. They'll go for about 12 hours at night. Then they get out a blue tarp [to cover the boat], and you'll never be able to see it. They'll rest during the day, and the second night will take them in."

He said Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have become important points for relaying drugs from South America to Central Florida. "You are looking at double the flow through the Caribbean over the past five years," Guarino said.

To spot this traffic, Customs officers are patrolling offshore areas with turboprop planes loaded with radar equipment and cameras as well as with Blackhawk helicopters based in Miami and Jacksonville. And a Predator drone — an unmanned aircraft with radar designed for maritime surveillance — hovers over the Caribbean to help detect illegal shipments.

The enforcement net has produced major seizures in the Caribbean, including 1,400 pounds of cocaine worth $17 million from a smuggler go-fast boat in January 2013; 2,200 pounds of cocaine worth $27 million from a fishing vessel last April; and $527 million worth of cocaine from two speedboats last June.

Much of the contraband produced in South America now goes to Africa and Europe, as cocaine use declines in this country and the drug cartels become more sophisticated international networks.

"Gone are the days of the cocaine cowboys," Gen. Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Instead, we and our partners are confronted with cocaine corporations that have franchises all over the world, including 1,200 American cities."

wgibson@tribune.com or 202-824-8256