How Drug Trafficking Works in Florida (Cuba and More)

Although Florida is known for many wonderful parts of the state, like the warm weather, beautiful beaches, delicious citrus fruit, fun amusement parks, and great communities for retirees to live, it is also notorious for drug traffickers bringing dangerous substances into the United States. The long coastline spreading from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, along with the Florida Keys island chain dipping close to Cuba and the Bahamas, means that airplanes and boats of all kinds bring potent drugs into the country.

Exposure to more intoxicating substances like cocaine, flakka, or heroin put Florida’s residents at higher risk of developing an addiction. Florida is working hard to keep denizens safe — not just by providing greater access to evidence-based treatment, but by combating the ongoing problem of drug trafficking into the Sunshine State.

Part of understanding the patterns of substance abuse in Florida is to understand how drugs are brought into the state and sent through to other parts of the country.

Drug Production in South America Shows Up in the U.S.

Colombia is the main producer of cocaine, one of the most abused drugs in Florida. Between 2013 and 2016, production of the coca plant in Colombia spiked 134 percent, leading to a subsequent rise in trafficking into the United States, which consumes the most cocaine in the world. An earlier report found that there was a 483 percent rise in cocaine washing up on Florida’s beaches in 2013 compared to 2012. By 2017, that was impacting many areas of Florida.

• Cocaine-involved deaths increased in Florida in 2016 for the fourth year in a row, leading to 2,822 deaths.
• Palm Beach County was in the top four counties for cocaine-involved deaths, with 405 people dying in 2016.
• Broward County reported 328 cocaine-involved deaths.
• Miami-Dade reported 439 cocaine-involved fatalities.

The drug is refined and then shipped through Central America — Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Guatemala predominantly — or through Venezuela to the Bahamas. Much of the drugs sent through Central America have been smuggled through the southwestern borders of Texas or Arizona, or through the border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California. However, with greater crackdowns along the land-locked borders, more drug trafficking is sent through Florida by boat or airplane.

Prior to the recent increase in cocaine sent in from Colombia, flakka (a dangerous synthetic cathinone drug) took over the stimulant abuse market in Florida. Many of these inexpensive, synthetic substances — including bath salts, Spice, and other related synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones — were purchased online and sent into Florida through the mail from clandestine labs in China. Flakka, or alpha-PVP, first appeared in Florida in 2014, and just one year later, it had saturated the stimulant abuse market in the Sunshine State.

Marijuana was also imported predominantly from Central and South America around 2014, and it was one of the drugs seized most often in boats. As U.S. states increasingly pass laws allowing for the medical and recreational use of marijuana, the imported version appears less often. But in 2013, 114 pounds of marijuana washed up on beaches in Florida, suggesting that there was a correlated increase in boats attempting to smuggle the psychedelic plant into the U.S. through the state. Seizures of marijuana drastically increased between 2012 and 2013, from 12,876 pounds to 26,823 pounds.

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Drug Trafficking Primarily Occurs via Boats

The shift from smuggling over Mexico’s borders with the U.S. began around 2014, as the Mexican government began a long crackdown of drug cartels across the country. This led South American, and some Central American, drug producers to shift their attention from the southwestern border to moving by boat through the Caribbean.

Narcotics are reportedly carried on a variety of sea vessels ranging from commercial or small, personal fishing vessels to crude submarines; however, the main boat seen smuggling drugs into Florida’s coastline from South America is a Panga, which is an open-top boat that is about 25 to 35 feet long.

Much of the water-based drug smuggling occurs in the Pacific, per a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report in 2016, but between 6 and 7 percent occurs through the Caribbean Corridor, or along the islands in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida. Currently, only 1 percent of drugs smuggled into the U.S. come over land through Mexico.

Costa Rica and Panama have reportedly suffered increases in drug traffickers coming through, aiming for Florida. There are so many American tourists who go to those countries for relaxing vacations, it is harder to monitor who is entering or leaving at any time. In contrast, drug traffickers avoid Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti.

El Salvador also does not appear to have high rates of drug trafficking, and the country reports that they have low rates of drug-related criminal activity. However, the U.S. State Department named El Salvador a major site of narcotics trafficking, if not cocaine trafficking, and a 2016 maritime raid nearby led to a fourfold increase in cocaine seizures.

Enforcement agencies in Florida and across the nation report that shifting drug trafficking routes have increased how much trafficking the southern state experiences, but that the rates are still not as high as the 1980s when cocaine trafficking in particular peaked. During that era, South Florida was the main smuggling route for cocaine, leading to such violent battles over control of this area that Miami became the murder capital of the U.S. in 1984.

Despite current enforcement efforts in Florida, it is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of contraband still enters Florida and goes up the eastern seaboard, or to Europe and West Africa.

Legal Punishments for Drug Trafficking in Florida

Although the state has discussed some potential changes to drug trafficking laws, Florida’s drug sentencing laws are among the most severe in the country, especially for selling and trafficking substances. The Florida laws penalizing drug trafficking are found in Florida Statutes 893.135.

Cannabis trafficking: Anyone found with over 25 pounds of marijuana or more than 300 cannabis plants is considered to be trafficking the drug, which is a felony in the first degree. Between 25 pounds and 2,000 pounds, or 300 to 2,000 cannabis plants, leads to a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 years in prison, and a fine of $25,000. Between 2,000 and 10,000 pounds, or 2,000 to 10,000 plants, leads to a mandatory sentence of 7 years in prison and a fine of $50,000. More than 10,000 pounds of marijuana or 10,000 plants leads to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $200,000 fine.

Cocaine trafficking: More than 28 grams of cocaine is a first-degree felony for trafficking, with 28 to 200 grams leading to a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 years in prison and a fine of $50,000; 200 to 400 grams of cocaine has a mandatory minimum of 7 years and a fine of $100,000; and more than 400 grams, but less than 150 kilograms, leads to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Opioid trafficking: Illicit opioids like heroin, fentanyl, or illegally produced morphine in amounts more than 4 grams is considered trafficking in illegal drugs, which is punishable with varying sentences. Between 4 and 14 grams, there is a minimum term of 3 years in prison and a $50,000 fine; 14 to 28 grams is a 7-year prison minimum, with a $100,000 fine; and between 28 grams and 30 kilograms has a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in jail, plus a $500,000 fine.
Other drugs punished with similar sentences include flunitrazepam, amphetamines, methamphetamine, new psychoactive substances (NPS), phenethylamines, LSD, or similar drugs that are dangerous and may cause death.

People who are citizens of the United States and convicted of drug trafficking in Florida will be punished through the state or federal prison system. Those who are residents of the state of Florida but not U.S. citizens may face deportation or extradition to their countries of origin as part of the sentence.

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