‘Hell, now the stuff is almost legal.’ Florida’s pot smugglers profit from weed — again

“Saltwater Cowboy” Tim McBride, who smuggled marijuana through Everglades City and into Miami, poses with his marijuana leaf tattoos, on a boardwalk in a wooded area on a recent visit to Everglades City, Friday, March 15, 2019.

It’s still there, parked on a piece of land deep in southern Miami-Dade County, the rusty remnants of the days when Jorge Cabrera ran drugs up the lone highway from the Florida Keys into Miami, dodging the feds in what might be the least suspect vehicle ever to lumber down a road: a bright yellow school bus.

Almost four decades later, Cabrera still cracks a devil-may-care grin recalling the tactics and tricks that kept him out of jail — at least until they did not.

“It was a rat-and-the-cat game. And I was the f---ing rat!”

Cabrera, a still mostly unrepentant ex-pot smuggler, plied his trade during what now seems like the quaint yesteryear of South Florida drug smuggling. Many bale-runners like Cabrera were rogues, homegrown locals who fancied themselves as dashing pot pirates — but they didn’t typically leave bodies floating in their wake like the gun-toting Cocaine Cowboys who would follow.

Their product also has undergone a dramatic image makeover. You can now get a medical marijuana card in Miami or anywhere else in Florida. And much of the U.S. no longer considers pot as the social evil it once was.

But there’s one thing that has stayed the same. Cabrera and a handful of his now gray-haired contemporaries have hit on one last way to make money from pot — and that’s by talking about it. They can do that now, with time served or statutes of limitations run out, and there’s an audience out there who will pay to hear them.

They’ve become TV consultants, authors, documentary film subjects and sought-after speakers. In places like the Florida Keys, the once-untold stories of mother ships, midnight beach landings and radar sabotage are now the subject of sold-out historical talks over dinner.

Cabrera, 63, is happily capping his two-decade smuggling career by becoming a bona fide part of history.

His most recent talk? The history of drug smuggling in the Florida Keys. And, as the official description notes, the dinner was sponsored by both the Matecumbe Historical Trust and the Islamorada Moose Lodge. It helped raise money for the trust.

“For 21 years, it was rock and rolling. You name it. What didn’t I do? Hell, even Jimmy Buffett wrote a song about making enough money to buy Miami,” Cabrera said recently from his home in the Middle Keys. “I would never talk, back in the old days. Everything was hush-hush. ... I’d rather do it now and have it from the horse’s mouth than somebody make up stories about me.”

One story that always goes down well with the history crowd is the school bus full of pot — the same one that now sits full of landscaping equipment on a piece of land a couple hours from the fish house that Cabrera still runs in Islamorada.

Cuban-born but Keys raised, the ex-drug runner had a variety of guises for slipping bales past the federal blockades. Dump trucks were by far his favorite — the workhorses of his smuggling system — but there were also shrimp boats, cars, tractor-trailers, a hollowed-out gas truck, even a DC-3 plane.

Once the federal vise started to tighten on U.S. Highway 1, he hit on another innocent-seeming method for moving pot in broad daylight. A school bus.

Cabrera bought one, stripped the seats out, swiped a license plate from another bus at a nearby school, piled up the pot bales so they reached just below the windows and sallied forth. One more ingredient went into the plan: He drove that bus in a full bus driver’s uniform — “with a wig and the whole g-----n thing.”

And he ran the route just twice a day, same as any other bus.

Cabrera still remembers exactly how much pot the vehicle carried: 7,000 pounds. And he was never stopped. Maybe his luck held out so long in part because he employed a lot of locals, one way or another.

An electrician doing what would normally be a $50 job might get paid $500, he said. A family in a waterfront house might be persuaded to go on a “vacation” and come home to find the lock broken on their door and $100,000 in a paper bag.

“We made so much money back then,” he said. “Somebody who worked for 10 bucks a year, you know, made with me half a million dollars a year. ... So it wasn’t hard to convince people.”

That’s the way it was in the Keys and all along Florida’s coasts, and law enforcement agents employed to stop the smugglers knew it. The drug runners had more than a few supporters in some coastal communities.

“If you were born and raised here in the Keys, you either were a smuggler or there was a smuggler in your family or you knew a smuggler really well,” said Ken Davis, an Islamorada village council member and a former DEA agent who has watched the social shift in perception of pot runners with a certain amount of acceptance. “These guys, there were never any guns. Nobody got hurt. It was like modern day pirates.”

Their primary weapons were evasion and disguise — and Cabrera had a lot of experience using both.

When the Netflix show “Bloodline” started filming in the Keys, for instance, Cabrera found himself advising the film crew on the most realistic way to hide bricks of cocaine in the false bottom of a plastic bin of fish on ice. They wanted, he said, to “pick my brain.”

Now he’s working with a film producer and an author to turn his memories into something more concrete. One of the stories he’d no doubt want to recount for the movie execs: the time he and his crew managed to get rid of a new menace to smugglers, the drug patrol radar station atop Alligator Reef Lighthouse.

He already had “a roomful” of radar scanners to keep track of drug agents on the water but once the new radar went up, even that wasn’t enough.

“We just couldn’t smuggle,” Cabrera said.

So, as with the school bus, he devised a plan. He bribed someone in the Coast Guard to let him know if the tower was ever unwatched, even for a day. It took six months, but he finally got the call. That day, Cabrera and his people headed out to sea on the Scarab he’d kept ready at a marina. They took care of the problem.

“The radar, we demolished it, OK?” he said. He added with a laugh: “Next day we went back to smuggling.”

But authorities also continually changed tactics, developing other ways of spotting smugglers besides radar. One Key West law enforcement officer had his own method: booze deliveries. Crews that landed a big one often held bubbly-fueled bashes to celebrate.

“I used to have an informal way of kind of tracking Perrier-Jouët shipments, because I knew if they spiked, that we’d missed a load,” said Allison DeFoor, a former prosecutor, sheriff and judge in the Keys who helped stifle the rampant culture of smuggling. These days, he’s an Episcopal priest in North Florida with a guayabera custom-made with a clerical collar.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he said, the drug trade had reached into every level of Key West society. One bumper sticker sold at the time declared, “When marijuana is legalized, I will be on welfare — Key West Pharmaceutical Shipper’s Association.”

And on such a tiny island, the relationship between smugglers and law enforcement became one of, perhaps, grudging respect — or at least an acknowledgment that they all had roles in a much bigger game.

“It was such a small town, we would all go up to the La Concha on Friday nights, which was the top of the tallest building in Key West,” DeFoor said. “The smugglers would be at one end of the bar and we’d be at the other end of the bar. And if they’d had a really good day, they’d be sending drinks down to us. And if we had a really good day, we’d be sending drinks down to them.”

DeFoor chased smugglers of all stripes, including Cabrera, whose use of dump trucks to ferry pot was “one of the smartest ways to smuggle that I had ever heard of. ... It worked for a long, long time.”

DeFoor even gave his own historical talk from the law enforcement perspective, after he’d learned of Cabrera’s. But DeFoor’s version of events was a little different.

He was a state prosecutor in the Keys after a Miami Herald series in 1980 uncovered the extent of the corruption there. “Smuggler’s Island” documented just how deeply the illegal industry had penetrated: A former sheriff accused the Monroe County state attorney of smoking pot on a boat, a narcotics detective was arrested for asking another deputy to steal bales from the sheriff’s evidence locker, and the city attorney was arrested on charges of selling cocaine.

The cottage industry in the Keys didn’t really wind down until a series of prosecutions — nicknamed the “Bubba busts” — started to dismantle the illegal business, taking down cops, firefighters and other members of the establishment.

Around the same time, in the southwest corner of Florida, one of the best-known crackdowns in the Sunshine State’s history was happening in Everglades City. So many people in the town had been lured into the easy-money economy of smuggling “square grouper” that the feds simply shut down the only road and started arresting people.

Tim McBride, an ex-pot hauler who was among those swept up in the raids, still has a Life magazine from 1984 that chronicled the strange tale: Trouble in Everglades City. A South Florida town tarred by drug smuggling and most of its 600 residents say ‘so what?’

McBride, who calls himself the unofficial spokesman for the former outlaws, was one of those eventually swept up in the resulting waves of arrests. But now, like many of his compatriots, he has a book to peddle.

Published in 2015, “Saltwater Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of a Marijuana Empire,” is his effort to “control the narrative.”

“We had come to the conclusion that ... if the story’s going to be told, it should be told by somebody who was here and somebody who had done every aspect of what it was that we were doing and understands it inside and out so they can tell their story about how it was done in a nonviolent, family-oriented way.”

The book, which depicts him on the cover, shirtless, has been out for a while, but he thinks it has potential for film or TV adaptation.

He has a lot of stories from back in the day, long before he inked pot leaves and the words Saltwater Cowboy in two-inch letters on his arm in a visible boast about his former profession.

He’ll happily tell you about the day that federal agents door-knocking for an arrest were surprised by a pair of mountain lions or about the crew that bought back a boat after it was seized by the feds — with the pot still intact in a secret compartment.

“We got really very good at learning how to spend money and not have anything to show for it,” he said. “It was almost a game at times.”

But to understand just how much money smugglers earned — and burned through — you have to hear the one about the Jeeps.

At the time, if you bought anything with more than $10,000 in cash, you had to fill out paperwork. And that could draw unwanted attention.

One day McBride spotted an auto dealership advertising Jeeps for under $10,000, so he called up his buddies and bought six of them. They took the four-wheel-drive vehicles out into the woods for “the most badass demolition derby on the planet,” McBride said.

They used whichever one was still running at the end to “drive us all back into town, buy six more.”

It’s quite a story. But perhaps the most “Florida man” smuggler story of them all involves a staged murder, a bullet-ridden station wagon and — of course — alligators. That’s John Darrell Boyd’s most infamous tale, one that was told on the Discovery Channel in 2011 before he started working with a writer to put his smuggling escapades into book form.

Boyd and his brother Tracey were nicknamed the Smith brothers after the logo of a popular cough drop brand, even though their line of work was decidedly less medicinal.

But they had a bit of Robin Hood in them, or maybe just a sense of the absurd. In 1977, at the height of their illegal activities, the pot smuggling brothers heard about a Labor Day telethon for children at a Miami TV station. They decided to drop by, with $10,000 in cash, handing the bills to the host along with a note — “To the kids, from the infamous Smith Brothers.”

“Wait ‘til we get the hell out of the building before you start yapping about this,” John Darrell Boyd, now 75, remembers telling the host, a TV personality known as Skipper Chuck.

But they hadn’t even hit the door before they heard their donation being touted live on air.

That made their legend. The Miami Herald front page the next day asked, “Pot runners or Tradesmen? ‘Smith Brothers’ Have Fun.”

And yet, that’s not the story that Boyd is best known for today. For that, we turn to the Discovery Channel series about outlaws who faked their own deaths to avoid prosecution.

When Boyd knew the cops were closing in, he hit on the plan. Drive a station wagon to the edge of the Everglades in Southwest Florida. Sit inside and shoot outward with a revolver. Stand outside and shoot into the car with two more — a .30-caliber rifle and a Browning 9mm. Then splash the car interior with a Gerber baby food jar of his own blood, drawn in advance because “I wanted it to be my blood.”

And then the final touch: Drag his cowboy boots, heels down, away from the bloodied and shot-up car.

“It looked like I had been drug off, put in a vehicle and taken out and fed to the alligators,” he said.

His scheme worked for an impressive two years — until DEA agents caught up to Boyd and his family living under assumed names in Buffalo, New York — although the real payoff may be now, on the Discovery Channel and beyond. “They called my segment alligators and autopsies, which I thought was hilarious.”

Boyd eventually spent four years in prison for smuggling. And that’s another thing that loosens the lips of some of Florida’s most notorious smugglers. They already did their time.

“You start looking at these cases. They were everywhere,” said Patrick Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor in Miami during some of the most hectic drug years. “But that’s all changed. It doesn’t happen anymore.”

The cultural shift on pot — from an insidious gateway drug to a medicine — has changed the perspective of some former smugglers. Maybe their bad old days weren’t really that bad. There is something about that Buffett song that Cabrera quoted, “A Pirate Looks at 40,” that resonates with him. The lyric goes this way: “I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast. Never meant to last.”

“I went to jail for making money. That’s really what I went for,” Cabrera said. “Hell, now the stuff is almost legal. The only thing I regret is not seeing my kids for 15 years.”

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.
Amy Driscoll edits politics and health policy for the Miami Herald. She’s a second-generation journalist, co-founder of FlashbackMiami.com and a Nieman Fellow.