EVERGLADES CITY, FLA. -- In the darkened bar of the Oyster House Restaurant, the sunset ritual has begun: The burly, clannish crabbers of Everglades City, still clad in their white knee-high rubber boots, are throwing down mug after mug of ice-cold brew and rehashing the 12 hours they have just spent on the gulf.

Suddenly a slightly sloshed, ruddy-faced 22-year-old crabber, his muscular forearms scarred from clashes with angry stone crabs, takes the conversation away from the quest for crab claws to the evil that has irrevocably altered the character of this tiny fishing hamlet.

"Drugs have ruined this town," says the hard-bodied crabman in the sleeveless T-shirt as he slams downs his glass of beer on the bar. "And that's the truth!"

The others grimly nod their heads. Drugs.

But the crabmen are not bemoaning the sinister presence of drugs in their little town. It's not that teenagers are smoking crack in the schoolyard; it's not that nights are punctuated by automatic rifle fire; addicts aren't mugging and robbing.

Drugs have destroyed Everglades City for the simple reason that the people in town who were running the drugs got caught.

And worse: When faced with prosecution, some friends and neighbors remained silent; but some turned on each other -- the unpardonable small-town sin.

Until 1983, Everglades City was known -- if at all -- as a bucolic fishing village 80 miles west of Miami on the edge of Everglades National Park. Then, at 5:17 on the morning of July 7, an armed convoy of more than 200 drug agents and police swept into town, blockaded the only road leading in and out, and pulled off a major crackdown of marijuana smuggling. A dozen people were arrested that day in Everglades City, another 16 in nearby communities. In the seven years since, the number of arrests for smuggling in the area has climbed past 300. More than 100 of those arrested lived in Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee and Copeland.

Since that day, Everglades City (pop. 526), the place that calls itself Florida's Last Frontier, has been called one of the most corrupt towns in America, one of the nation's most active drug ports. It is now recognized as having been the headquarters of mom-and-pop smuggling operations that ferried more than 75 tons of marijuana a week from the mountains of Colombia into the 2,000 square miles of salt-water labyrinth known as the Ten Thousand Islands.

To this day, few in the town consider the smugglers lawbreakers. In fact, with almost everyone in town related to a dope smuggler or friends with a dope smuggler, or a smuggler himself, a defensiveness and protectiveness has descended on Everglades City. Indeed, many seem to feel that marijuana isn't so bad, that it doesn't really hurt anybody -- certainly not like cocaine or heroin does. Everglades smugglers are adamant in their insistence that they never hauled cocaine. In any case, the smugglers of Everglades City don't see themselves as criminals, just fishermen trying to put food on the table.

Loren "Totch" Brown is an Everglades City folk hero. A man who freely admits he smuggled, Brown was never convicted for it. But in a mahogany-solemn federal courtroom in 1983, the weathered old fisherman with the thick, rubbery ears and kindly face calmly pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and was granted immunity from prosecution on drug smuggling charges. He had reported a 1982 fishing income of $18,000. The government claimed he had neglected to mention $528,000 in marijuana profits.

Unruffled, he sweetened his deal by writing out cashier's checks to the court for $1,229,000. He surrendered a portfolio of ill-gotten gains worth more than $2 million, including a shrimp boat, a house, a condominium, apartments and a 1982 Lincoln.

Brown was sentenced to three years in prison on the tax charges. He served 18 months, with an extra two months tacked on for contempt of court -- he refused to name other smugglers.

"I would die before I'd testify against my friends," Brown said.

When Totch Brown's grandson, 25-year-old Eddie Rewis, got arrested for smuggling, he followed his grandfather's example. He pleaded guilty to four pot-smuggling charges, but refused to testify against his friends. He got 40 years for his loyalty.

Even today, when the 71-year-old Brown wistfully describes how he and his fleet of three boats outwitted and outran drug agents, a look of obvious pride washes across his tanned, smiling face.

"There's no way a stranger to these parts could find us. And forget about keeping up with us," Brown said. "We use no lights whatsoever at night. Lights would blind us."

Like so many others in Everglades City, Brown claims he was forced into smuggling because the government made it almost impossible to pursue his livelihood -- fishing. In 1947 the federal government turned much of the Ten Thousand Islands area into Everglades National Park and banned hunting. Over the years, it increasingly restricted where fishermen could dip their nets or drop their crab traps. Finally, in 1985, the despised federal government moved in yet again, banning commercial fishing altogether in the park.

Many of the fishermen in Everglades City were already living in or near poverty -- the average income rarely climbs above $17,000 a year -- and they were enraged at the fishing restrictions. It was the only excuse they needed to turn against the law.

Totch Brown flew to South America with a trusted friend and hooked up with the dope barons in the village of Barranca. "What I remember about that trip was the man riding a little horse who came up to us. He was barefoot, didn't have a shirt on and was wearing a straw hat. What I really remember was the .38 he had tucked in his belt, next to his bare skin. I'm just as sure as God made little apples that the man hadn't put the .38 there for fun."

After returning to Florida, he got in his shrimp boat, the Salley Ann, crossed the gulf and tied up off the coast of Colombia. He found a translator he could trust and headed back into the mountains to rendezvous with his new business partners. He wandered among thousands of bales of pot, selecting them as casually as if he were strolling the aisles of a supermarket. He wetted them down to make them more compact, stuffed them into his shrimp boat, and shot across the Caribbean. It was a simple matter to dodge the federal patrols in the Ten Thousand Islands. There, he was like Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch.

In his unpublished autobiography, "Doing It Right: Life in the Everglades," Brown writes: "Instead of crawfish, stone crab, or mackerel, I loaded my 72-foot shrimp boat in Colombia with all the marijuana she'd float with, and drove 'er home across the Caribbean. Until then I'd thought hunting alligators up to fourteen foot, with some of 'em coming at me head-on, was scary enough, but the fright that came with pot-hauling would scare a full-grown tomcat out of all nine of his lives. Along with the frights, though, came experiences so exciting they'd make a sick man well!"

Playing cat-and-mouse with the patrol boats quickened his pulse and sharpened his confidence.

"We thought we'd never get caught," he said. "That's why it went on and on."

From Rustbuckets To Lincolns

In the happy-go-lucky smuggling days of the early 1980s, crabbers and mullet fishermen who had worked seasonal seven-day weeks for $600 paychecks started pulling in $10,000, $30,000 or $100,000 a night for much lighter work.

High-level dealers in Miami with contacts in the big Colombian cartels could take one look at a map of South Florida and see that the Ten Thousand Islands were more than a sportsman's paradise. They were the perfect portals for dope.

A slightly longer glance would show that only somebody who really knew the islands would have a prayer of navigating them. Most of the waterways are unnamed. Others carry ominous-sounding names such as Buzzard Key, Lostman's River, Unknown Bay. One shallow inlet is called simply the Nightmare. Marine charts warn of "numerous snags" and advise that "mariners should obtain local knowledge" before attempting passage.

A local shrimp boat captain who stood to make $1.4 million from a single off-load would pay a half-dozen men to meet the mother ship from South America 40 or 50 miles offshore. The shrimp boat would go in closer to the islands and be met there by smaller "go-fast" boats that could negotiate the narrow channels leading to land. Another group of men, bale hoppers, would be hired to unload the bales from the small boats to vans and trucks.

A man going out to the mother ship could make $100,000. A man in a smaller boat would clear maybe $40,000. The bale hoppers got $25,000. Whoever loaned his van or truck to the enterprise didn't even have to be there, and he'd make $10,000 in cash -- awfully tempting for a fisherman used to making $17,000 a year.

The new industry changed the way things looked around town.

Overnight, poverty-stricken fishermen who once drove old rustbuckets were seen cruising about in sleek new pickups and Lincoln Continentals. Young men who once wore blue jeans and work shirts strutted about with thick gold chains dangling from their necks and shiny new cowboy boots on their feet.

Ramshackle cracker-box houses suddenly sported new siding and sprouted fancy additions: screened-in porches, swimming pools, paved driveways, air conditioning.

Slowly but surely, word of the conspicuous wealth in Everglades City began to filter to the Feds. They began to sniff around, and -- understandably -- their suspicions began to multiply.

A Lack of Trust

"Drug smuggling has been a way of life for individuals associated with Everglades City. ... They ignored the law, indeed laughed at the law, treating the criminal justice system as a joke," Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Daltuva wrote in a 1989 memo to a federal district judge in Fort Myers, Fla. "The gravity of their situation has yet to sink in."

Daltuva calls the Everglades smugglers "new age outlaws." A special effort was devised to tame them.

When it came time to try the small-town smugglers, prosecutors settled on a deceptively simple technique that undermined the cohesiveness of the community and that the locals have come to despise. It's called "trading up": Grab the little guy whose involvement in the operation was minimal and get him to testify against the more important smugglers in return for a lighter sentence. If he won't, send him off to prison for as long as possible -- some got 40 years.

Under that frontal assault, the town's conspiracy of silence began to crumble.

"There's no trust. That's where it hurts them," says Southwest Florida State Attorney Joe D'Alessandro. "We've got them on psychologically shaky ground. It takes a lot of people to run one of those off-loads, and if there's even one guy you can't trust, you're in trouble."

D'Alessandro knows how hard it is to earn the trust of people in Everglades City. For nine months in 1987, his investigators ran a fish house, sold fish to restaurants and tried to infiltrate the family smuggling rings. They got some useful information, he said, but no immediate arrests.

They also made $25,000 as fishmongers.

"It was a profitable enterprise," D'Alessandro said.

Indeed, prosecutors are still harvesting the fruits of that probe and others. Every four or six months, a new crop of indictments comes out of a federal grand jury up in Fort Myers. The charges are all from off-load operations going back four or five years. Each time a new batch of indictments is unsealed, the town's bitterness wells up anew.

"Why can't they just get it over with?" asks Eric Weldon, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Everglades City, across the street from Everglades City School, where an award-winning 12-foot-by-6-foot "People With Class Don't Smoke Grass" poster occupies one entire wall.

Weldon has been upholding the law in one way or another for most of his life. He was a state trooper and a sheriff's deputy in Everglades City 29 years ago. He left to become a Border Patrol agent, then returned last year to preach to a town that looked nearly the same as it did in 1961, but with a different, bitter atmosphere.

Weldon is one of the few willing to openly denounce smuggling. He encourages a member of his congregation, a former smuggler, who talks to fellow church members of his wayward ways and witnesses about how he found God in prison.

But the trooper-turned-preacher also criticizes the government. He says the investigation has ruined entire families and that each new arrest opens old wounds.

"As long as these people are in jail, this town will suffer," Weldon said.

"These boys are getting a raw deal," insists Fran Tiff, a real estate agent in nearby Chokoloskee. "You get rapists and killers getting out in three years, and they're trying to send our guys up for 40 years. This is a lovely little island, and these people were just trying to make a living. I can't condone the marijuana hauling, but I can certainly understand it. I don't know what I would have done if someone had asked me to get involved. You never know. I may have done it myself."

A Small-Town Town

To a passerby, Everglades City doesn't seem to be that much different from countless other little backwater fishing towns. At sunset, the only activity comes from the bells at Everglades Community Church and the rattletrap mosquito-control truck, which wheezes around town, squirting a cloud of pesticides from what looks for all the world like a garden hose.

It's the kind of town where the phone book takes up four pages; the kind of town where stone crabbers might get a little drunk and, for excitement, have a contest down at one of the fish houses that line the scenic, molasses-slow Barron River to see who can size crab claws the fastest. Being quick at picking out jumbos from large and medium-sized claws is a prized skill in Everglades City, the source of about 95 percent of the stone crab claws caught in the United States.

It's a place with community spirit: Just let the county government in Naples, 40 miles to the west, take up an issue involving Everglades City and watch the clouds of dust stirred up by the citizenry motoring en masse to the meeting.

In 1982, hundreds of residents jammed the Everglades City School auditorium to protest plans to shut down the high-school section of the kindergarten-through-12th-grade school and bus the older students to Immokalee or East Naples. The Collier County School Board said a senior class of only 14 didn't really justify the cost. At the meeting, residents pitched in $600 to hire an attorney to keep the school open. They succeeded. The Class of '91 has 10 students.

Then the town got a new fire truck, and a part-time paramedic. Revenue from the annual Seafood Festival held in February -- the only time strangers are welcomed with open arms -- paid for a new fire hall-community center.

The place is consciously, stubbornly small town.

"My wife said when I got elected that maybe I should tuck my shirt in," said Mayor Carlton "Snapper" Butler. "But I wear my shirttails out." Butler, who has lived here 41 years, still considers himself a newcomer. "You can't find better people in the world than what's in Everglades City," said Butler, beginning the peculiar moral dance that Everglades City spokesmen invariably perform for outsiders. "I can walk down the streets, and I ain't worried about gettin' mugged. My car's parked outside right now with the keys in it, and I ain't worried about someone drivin' it off. It's a small town. It ain't a concrete jungle."

Yes, the mayor allows, the smugglers were wrong to forsake the law in a quest for big bucks. "When you're talking about hauling drugs, you're talking about our schoolkids, and seeing the stuff sold on school grounds. ... I could never have done it for that reason."

Beans, Grits and Square Grouper

In the end, it was the money. It was too much. Too easy.

Letter after letter tells the story. They pile up weekly in federal court: pleas for leniency, apologies, mea culpas.

Jack Peter Zatz said he succumbed so he could get enough money to pay his ever-mounting bills and take care of his pregnant wife. In a letter to the court written earlier this year, after he was convicted of smuggling, Zatz said, "There was always someone trying to get me involved in their deals. ... The good ol' boys kept calling me to come down and work jobs with them." He finally agreed to help unload a shipment of "square grouper," as they call marijuana in these parts.

"For that I was paid $20,000, and ruined my life," Zatz wrote. Zatz, 51, is serving a 10-year sentence.

"It all sounded so easy and so good, that my brother fell for it all," Debra Gray wrote on behalf of her brother, convicted smuggler Marvin Lee Darna. "My brother never had anything in his life, and he was told that he could have anything money could buy."

Even the agents whose job it is to arrest these tenacious smugglers have some sympathy.

"They're impoverished. I don't hold it against them," said one undercover agent who has been working the Everglades cases for more than five years. "The government took away their living. I'm not saying smuggling is right, but it got to where they had to put beans and grits on the table."

Totch Brown was born in 1920 on the shell island that is Chokoloskee, before the first roads were punched through the Everglades. His grandfather built the settlement's first schoolhouse, first church, post office and trading post. Totch himself has poached alligators. He has gigged frogs and crabbed and fished. He played a bad guy alongside Burl Ives in the old movie "Wind Across the Everglades." He has been around, and he has given this smuggling business a lot of thought.

He wants all those who judge him and his neighbors to first ask themselves: "If you were struggling to put food on your family's table, and the federal government was making it so hard for you to make a living fishing and hunting, and one night a good friend tells you he'd give you $15,000 just to borrow your truck, what would you do?"

Apparently, his neighbors don't have any problem with this philosophy.

Just five months ago, as if to thumb its nose at the outside world, the town made the best-known smuggler of them all grand marshal of its Independence Day parade. Totch, who admits to smuggling countless hundreds of thousands of pounds of dope, led several floats through the streets, merrily waving to local children from a red 1967 Firebird convertible owned by the president of the local Chamber of Commerce.