Despite the Reagan administration's highly publicized war on illegal drugs, cocaine smugglers are sneaking record amounts of the drug into the United States, moving a bumper crop from expanded fields in South America.
Federal and local narcotics enforcement officials say the administration's intense manpower and coordination efforts have produced a near-doubling of cocaine confiscated in raids and customs seizures since last year, reaching an average of 2,000 pounds a month.
But at the same time, they acknowledge that availability of the drug on the market, measured by slashed prices among dealers, has shot up in the Miami distribution hub and is rising quickly around the country.
"There's a glut on the market," said Rear Adm. D.C. (Deese) Thompson, southeast regional coodinator in the administration's National Narcotics Border Interdiction System.
"It's a serious turn in the war on drugs," he added.
The success of cocaine smugglers in the face of a determined government anti-drug campaign reflects the difficulty of detecting compact cocaine shipments in their bewildering range of guises, ranging from flower boxes to swallowed balloons, and the willingness of dealers to take high risks for the phenomenal profits involved, the officials say.
Cmdr. Arthur Nehrbass of Dade County's Organized Crime Bureau pointed out that a kilogram of cocaine forms a package no bigger than a football, making clandestine transport relatively easy. Many cocaine runners fly the white powder from South America to the Bahamas and then transport it the short distance to Miami in smaller packages hidden in high-powered speedboats, he said.
"You take a 35-foot cigarette boat and you put 50 Ks on it and you just run it over," he explained.
Vice President Bush's South Florida Task Force on drugs, expanded March 23 into the national interdiction system, has sharply reduced the amount of bulkier marijuana smuggled in. But cocaine, easier to hide and more lucrative to market, has arrived in greater quantities despite unprecedented seizures by the increased manpower put into place since President Reagan announced his war on drugs and put Bush in charge.
"We could have every customs inspector in the country here and I could still get some cocaine in," said Nehrbass.
He added that many cocaine smugglers consider the increasing seizures, even millions of dollars' worth, are little more than "overhead."
As a result, cocaine in the Miami area is "more available than it ever was," he said. Prices in South Florida's distribution network have plummeted from $55,000 to $60,000 a kilo last year to $25,000 to $35,000 a kilo now, he calculated.
The city's wide use of Spanish and its geographical position on the Caribbean have made Miami the national center for cocaine smuggling and distribution.
This has remained true even as the federal task force has pressured smugglers northward toward new avenues into the country. The increased availability and lower prices here thus have swiftly spread to other parts of the country.
Phil Jordan, deputy chief of the cocaine investigation section in the Drug Enforcement Administration, said DEA reports show cocaine that went for $75,000 a kilogram last year in the New York area is being sold for $30,000 to $40,000 now.
In Los Angeles, he said, cocaine is going for $45,000 to $55,000 a kilogram, a drop of $10,000 since last month.
In the Washington, D.C., area, cocaine selling for $55,000 to $75,000 a kilogram at the beginning of the year is on the market now for $50,000 to $60,000, Jordan said.
The slump in prices reflects plentiful crops in traditional growing areas of Peru and Bolivia along with newly cultivated areas in Colombia, he added.
Colombia previously had been less of a growing area than a center for smuggler clans and their money handlers.
But now, Jordan said, "As the bushes mature, the crop has begun to greatly exceed world demand."
DEA intelligence reports said dealers buying cocaine base in Colombia last February were paying $4,600 to $4,800 a kilogram, but by August the price had fallen to $1,650 to $1,850. Processed cocaine showed similar price drops.
As a result of the glut, dealers have been turning to Europe in search of new markets, Jordan said.
The increased organization of U.S. efforts has helped produce better cooperation with foreign law enforcement agencies to combat trafficking, he added, but foreign anti-drug officials face problems similar to those of their American colleagues.
Reagan first set up the Florida task force in response to complaints from Miami leaders that crime was getting out of hand. It began work in March, 1982, with temporarily assigned extra agents from the DEA; Customs; the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Justice Department.
For the first time, Coast Guard patrol boats and Navy radar planes, along with radar balloons in the Florida keys, also were assigned to track and intercept drug smugglers sailing toward the United States from Colombia or intermediate stops.
Although first proposed as an extraordinary and temporary measure, the force has expanded into six regional border patrol programs under Bush, called the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System, and 12 regional investigation teams under Attorney General William French Smith, baptized the Organized Crime/Drug Enforcement Task Forces.