Congressional members help give Miami drug-war casualty a fitting honor

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Rios ATF website

Miami Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo this week reached into a dark period in Miami’s criminal history — and the country’s bloody war on drugs — to make sure an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, murdered in a Flagler Street motel 34 years ago in a shootout with drug dealers, receives national honor.

Rep. Curbelo was on the House floor on Tuesday as one of several co-sponsors from Florida speaking in support of a bill to once again name the ATF headquarters in Washington D.C., the Ariel Rios Federal Building. Here’s why the bill was needed: An old ATF headquarters bore Special Agent Rios’ name, but the agency moved to new headquarters and the designation was not carried over. The process had to start from scratch.

We praise Mr. Curbelo and his congressional colleagues Indiana Rep. André Carson and Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Corrine Brown, for helping right a careless and painful oversight for Agent Rios’ family. The bill passed 401-0, and now goes to the Senate, which should give it unanimous approval, too.

“I’m very proud to recognize this American hero who so sadly perished while protecting the people of Miami, my hometown, from crime and drugs,” Mr. Curbelo said.

Agent Rios earned the honor by making the ultimate sacrifice — he was one of the first local victims of America’s — and South Florida’s — declared war on drugs and crime.

Back in 1982, his murder shocked Miami-Dade. Agent Rios, then 27 and the father of two, had come to Miami from Hartford, Connecticut, to work undercover luring drug dealers. The tragedy of his subsequent death played out at the height of one of Miami’s worst crime waves.

Two years earlier, some 125,000 Mariel refugees had arrived, and some of them, looking for a fast lane to the American Dream, joined the just-formed Medellin Cartel’s so-called “Cocaine Cowboys.” Their business was booming in Miami. Deals for kilos were going down everywhere, even in parking lots of Dadeland Mall, and many were turning violent. The bodies were mounting at the Dade County morgue.

Outraged by the increasing drug trade, Miamians rightly lobbied the federal government for help. The Herald wrote numerous editorials on the topic. In January 1982, President Ronald Reagan responded by creating a cabinet-level panel, the Vice President’s Task Force on South Florida to be headed by George H.W. Bush. It combined agents from the DEA, Customs, FBI, ATF and the IRS to mobilize against traffickers.

And that’s how on a Thursday afternoon 11 months later, Agent Rios ended up at the Hurricane Motel at 4911 W. Flagler St. with his partner to buy a kilo of coke. Something went wrong during the deal, sparking the shooting inside the small hotel room.

When back-up agents stormed into the room, their colleague had been mortally wounded, shot through an eye.

The group of men charged in Agent Rios’ murder were sentenced to up to 50 years in prison. The agent was buried in Puerto Rico.

Sadly, Agent Rios died in the war on drugs that we’ve, in many ways, lost. The casualties on both sides have been staggering. Thank the Florida delegation for remembering this sad chapter in our history and helping set the course to restore Agent Rios’ name on a federal building, where it belongs.