Cars race down city streets at 80 miles an hour, the passengers trading shots. Mobsters roar into a crowded suburban shopping center, cutting down enemies in a hail of machine-gun fire that sends bystanders diving for cover. Rival gangs import hit men to control territory and muscle out competition. "Rub-outs" become so frequent that only the most spectacular triple and quadruple killings automatically make the front page.
Chicago in the 1920s? No, Miami today.
For the past year, that palm-fringed city has been the center of a gangland style of war reminiscent of the wildest days of the Prohibition era. The reason is drugs, primarily cocaine. Organized gangs of drug traffickers -- most of them Colombian nationals who slip into this country illegally -- are turning the streets of Greater Miami into a battleground.
Close to one-third of Dade County's record 362 homicides last year involved so-called "cocaine cowboys." This year, the murder rate is running 20 percent higher than in 1979.
"I've been a cop for 20 years, but I've never seen violence like it," my staff was told by Capt. Marshll Frank, chief of Dade County's harassed homicide squad. "The Hells Angels can't hold a candle to these crazy Colombians. They make the Mafia look like Boy Scouts. They have absolutely no regard for human life . . .And they have us outgunned, outmanned and outspent."
The situation in Miami has reached the point where a local television station, delivering public-service messages to viewers n how to prevent crime such as muggings and burglary, now includes advice on what to do if you're caught in the cross fire of a shoot-out in the streets. (Answer: Get down and stay there.)
Violence has always been an occupational hazard in the drug trade, but lately, as the demand for cocaine and marijuana has skyrocketed, traffickers seem increasingly ready to use deadly force.
Yet this threat to the well-being of every American could be ended if Americans stopped using illegal drugs and cracked down on those who refuse to comply. But the assessment of officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration is gloomy. America's appetite for illegal drugs -- estimated by the DEA to total $60 billion this year -- is expected to continue to increase.
And the fantastic profits raked in by the smugglers seem to ensure that the violence will escalate. Notes the DEA's Allan Pringle: "Dope dealers are now bringing in so much cash that they aren't bothering to count it. They weigh it. They bring in huge sacks of money and weigh it. As long as you have this kind of profits, violence will continue unless there is tremendous pressure from (the public)."
Although the trend is nationwide, nowhere has the violence yet approached the ferocity of Miami, where at least eight highly organized crime gangs of Colobians -- each well over 100 members strong -- battle for control of the drug import trade. "They're peasants from the hills," says homicide detective Al Lopez, a red-haired Cuban American. "They're recruited by the gangs, brought over here on false passports or smuggled in by boat from the Bahamas.
"They're used to violence, and they think nothing of killing. The gangs rule by fear. The rule is, if you get caught, say nothing. Otherwise, they not only kill the guy who talks but they kill his entire family back in Columbia. It's a very effective way of maintaining loyalty and control."
The cocaine cowboys are in a shooting war for all the usual reasons -- protecting territory, intramural jealousy, drug rip-offs, plus an added element. "Call it macho," suggests detective Steve Jackson. "They're always looking for revenge. An eye for an eye. Avenge the insult. "They regard each other as expendable."
Those who are arrested usually post bond, walk out of the courtroom and vanish into the underworld. "We had three guys on $2 million total bond, but they got it reduced to $800,000 and skipped," one detective said. "When you buy a kilo of pure coke in Columbia for $3,000 and wholesale it for $50,000 in Miami -- or $250,000 if you cut it and distribute it -- then you can afford to walk out on these bonds."
Added another frustrated homicide detective, Sgt. Gary McGowan: "I'm appalled at the ease with which these illegals are allowed to function in our country. It's not the immigration department's fault; they're totally overworked. It's the laws that are wrong.
"Why should these people be given all the rights and priveleges of citizens when they're here illegally, shooting up our streets?"
And from Allan Pringle, one more warning: "The really frightening part is the spillover effect from what's happening in Miami to the drug trade in general. There is a growing, widespread mentality developing among traffickers -- inspired by these Columbian nationals -- that life isn't important, that people are quite expendable. It's getting very, very dangeros out there."