Down on the southwest coast of Florida, almost to the tip, is a little town called Everglades City. It started out as Everglades, but the state legislature changed the name to Everglades City in 1965.
Calling it a city is a reach, as the 2010 population was 400. It’s a fishing town located in the area known as 10,000 Islands, a gateway to the Everglades.
And it’s always been a haven for smugglers.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the contraband was drugs, especially marijuana.
The way this came about is interesting. In the 1940s, President Truman proclaimed the Everglades a national park. The Department of the Interior said that the inhabitants of Everglade City would never have to worry about being banned from fishing in the Everglades, but of course they broke that promise, claiming they had no choice.
Just like that, permit holders were put on a time limit that was rapidly running out on the only living they knew how to make. What were they supposed to do?
Well, one solution they turned to was the age-old one of smuggling. Only the locals knew the ways through the channels, so evading law enforcement would be easy. To that end, they struck up deals with Colombian marijuana exporters. Seven or eight boats would meet the ships at night and off-load the cargo in square bales. Sometimes the wires would get crossed and there would be two ships that night and the wrong one would get unloaded first. And sometimes law enforcement would discover these smugglers and they would have to throw their loads overboard. The bales came to be known as square groupers.
All of a sudden, fishermen who made $100 a night on a good night of fishing were pulling in $15,000 a night or more. As one former smuggler named Dana Masey said, idiots became millionaires. New houses popped up all over the city, and everybody was driving new vehicles.
Law enforcement knew something was going on, but they had no way to get next to it. Everglades City is small. Most of the inhabitants are related in one way or another, so sending in undercover agents was out of the question.
Problem was, as Mr. Masey said, idiots became millionaires. Aubrey Rogers, the Collier County sheriff, contacted the DEA and said he had a problem in Everglades City but had no way to move people in. The community was too tight-knit.
So the DEA sent in operatives disguised as buyers looking for “grouper.” One agent said they hadn’t been there fifteen minutes when an officer from the sub-station asked them their business. When they told him they were there to fish for grouper, he said they wouldn’t be fishing, but if they wanted a good price on better grouper than they could find in Miami, he would introduce them to someone who could help them. The agents were taken out a small dirt road where they were shown a “small mountain” of marijuana bales. Their contact told them to pick whichever one they wanted, then said they owed him $10,000. It was just that easy.
The DEA took over operations in one of the fish houses, and agents worked as off-loaders, guards, whatever. They were soon trusted inside the operations.
Then, early one morning, the DEA and FBI surrounded the town. Everglades City literally had only one road in or out—Route 29—and they blocked that off. Police sat
on the water in boats, cutting off escape that way. And then they moved into the town itself, rounding up suspects and taking them to jail, arresting 41 people altogether. This was in addition to at least 149 earlier arrests. In total, most of the adult male population of the town was arrested.
On top of that, they seized boats and airplanes they claimed were used in smuggling operations, as well as hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana.
In the end, the smugglers were fairly philosophical about it, exhibiting no animosity to the agents. In their opinion, they were doing a job and so were the agents. Family members told on one another because it was the only thing to do unless they wanted to spend an inordinate amount of time in prison.
Today, Everglades City has returned to being a quiet commercial fishing village. If you Google the town, you’ll get results for hotels, restaurants, and fishing. You’ll get articles on 30 things to do in Everglades City. You’ll get sites talking about airboat tours. There’s even a site for the Everglades City School. And they still have their seafood festival every year.
If you’d like to know more about this story—and a couple others related to this that I might talk about in the future—check out the documentary Square Groupers: The Godfathers of Ganja. It’s available on Amazon for cheap (of course), and it comes to you from the creators of Cocaine Cowboys, Rakontur. Put the two together and you have a duology of drug smuggling in south Florida in the seventies and eighties. If you’re interested in this particular area of crime history, you can’t go wrong.