From the Archives: The Banana Boat Connection (1978)

What the railroad did for the American West, the banana boat is doing for Colombian cocaine.
Banana
Courtesy High Times Magazine

By Andy Rosenblatt

John West Thatcher is not your average, run-of-the-mill, depraved, weird, long-haired, hippie drug smuggler. For starters, Thatcher doesn’t drink, curse or smoke. Not even cigarettes. He’s a God-fearing, born-again Christian who eats lunch at his unpretentious desk, wets his hair and combs it straight back, works six days a week and goes to church on the seventh.

He’s also a Kiwanis Club member, Davidson College trustee, retired lieutenant colonel and chairman of the Miami chapter of Youth for Christ. With a cover like that, who would ever suspect that Thatcher is the number one cocaine importer in Florida, maybe in the nation—a distinction he earned without really trying. Or spending a day in jail.

John Thatcher’s business is bananas. Literally. He imports the yellow fruit from Colombia to Miami, 150 million oblong tropical delights each year. He also imports—inadvertently—a lot of cocaine, something Thatcher, a deacon of the Presbyterian Church, finds hard to explain. The nose candy comes in with the rest of Thatcher’s cargo on the three big banana boats he owns. Like Thatcher’s bananas, the coke comes in bunches. Sometimes 50 pounds, sometimes 150 pounds at a time.

What the railroad did for the American West, the banana boat is doing for Colombian cocaine. The connection is easy and efficient. In the last three years, well over a ton of coke has moved through it. Over 750 pounds has been wasted by Customs narcs who watch all banana boats that dock in Tampa or Miami. The top three seizures on the DEA all-time hit parade took place on banana boats. Together, the seizures account for one out of every eight pounds of coke the feds have put their hands on, an incredible $190-million payload of snow. For every pound that’s wasted, it’s certain that three, four or maybe five pounds end up in someone’s nose.

The banana boat offers the big-time coker some significant advantages. Scheduling is one of them. At least two banana boats leave Colombia for Florida every week. Their schedules are as regular as the airlines’, and there’s less chance of losing your baggage.

The banana boats travel the fastest water route possible; they’re nonstop and refrigerated to boot. Unlike their airborne competition banana boats require no overhead, since the coker, in essence, is hitching a ride. There’s no maintenance or licenses to worry about. Not even gas.

Another big advantage is the banana boat’s size. The 300-foot-long ships may look like huge hulks of scrap metal and twisted steel to the untrained eye, but they offer cokers up to 90,000 cubic feet of storage space and a million and one nooks and crannies to hide a stash.

The only limit is the coker’s imagination, which is to say no limit at all. Coke has been found everywhere on Thatcher’s ships. In the pipes, the walls, the electrical paneling; in oil containers and soap boxes. Also in the crew’s lockers, the bilge, abandoned generators, rope lockers, the engine room, the galley and in tin cans. If a suitable compartment cannot be found, it can usually be constructed. Cokers have put in false pipes, false walls and false floors.

A stash of 157 pounds was found in the banana boat’s bilge behind 6,000 boxes of bananas and a layer of decking. Another 42 pounds was inadvertently discovered by a fastidious female narc who marveled about one boat’s galley crew and how they neatly wrapped their garbage. The “garbage” she stumbled past was worth $10 million on the street.

Some of the best places to put small amounts of coke are on Thatcher’s crew. Each banana boat carries more mules than a box of borax soap. The mules pack coke in the heels of their shoes, their underwear, their crotches and sometimes their girdles. The mules are recruited in Turbo, Colombia, where the banana boats dock. The selection process is not an arduous one. Any sailor who understands that there are rewards for poor vision and penalties for sharp eyes can qualify. Mules coming into Miami can expect $1,000 or more for every kilo that is safely delivered.

Luis Eduardo Arias never collected his mule’s fee. He never safely delivered his cocaine. Arias once tried to move 18 ounces of coke off the banana boat Cubahama by stuffing it deep inside his stained jockey shorts. But it wasn’t the telltale bulge of Arias’s crotch that gave the Colombian sailor away. It was the empty quart bottle of Pepsi he never returned.

Two Customs narcs routinely trailed Arias as he left the banana boat, crossed the Miami River and walked to Little Havana, Miami’s Cuban, coke-snorting enclave. They didn’t notice the enormity of the sailor’s groin. At least initially. They did notice the soda bottle and became suspicious when Arias entered a convenience store but didn’t return the bottle for a deposit.

“The Colombians are creatures of habit just like the rest of us,” one of the arresting narcs later said. “None of them would pass up a chance to deposit a bottle. Not one of the big ones that pay a dime.”

Joaquin Fernandez also got burned. Not by Customs; by a competing mule. On a humid and uncomfortable August night in Tampa, Fernandez walked the deck of the banana boat EA, fought with the mosquitoes and waited for his contact. It wasn’t long before a boyish-looking American appeared. “Puta,” the American said in the middle of his conversation, “is Spanish for whore.”

That was Fernandez’s signal. The Colombian moved back into his quarters with great purpose. He then ran into the engine room and started removing the 117 bolts that kept the hatch plate on the water tank and everyone from his stash. Fernandez worked fast, but the last few bolts were stuck. The American who had boarded the boat offered a hand. As Fernandez moved away to make room, he turned and pissed in his pants. Four other men were standing behind him. They all carried guns. The men were Customs agents, tipped off by another sailor suspected of carrying his own load.

Arias and Fernandez ended their American vacation by being hauled before a federal judge and given a lecture and a fine they couldn’t pay before being deported to Turbo, a fishing village turned boom town on the Colombian coast from whence they came.

Virtually nothing happens in Turbo—a town of 30,000 inhabitants, small bars and rutted streets—that doesn’t involve bananas or cocaine. A one-wharf town, 22 miles from the end of the closest paved road, Turbo sits on the edge of the Colombian jungle, where the rich soil produces millions of Cavendish bananas and the surrounding hills produce communist guerrillas.

Bananas provide most of the jobs in Turbo. Cocaine provides most of the wealth. In the best of times, bananas retail for 25 cents a pound. Cocaine, at any time, sells for more than ten times the freemarket price of gold. Turbo’s snowfall has given Colombian cokers the money necessary to buy the fastest planes, the biggest haciendas and the prettiest women. It has given successful mules the chance to purchase one of Colombia’s most sought-after status symbols—a house with a concrete floor.

In Turbo, the wise peasant drinks his aguardiente, a clear liquid made from the essences of anisette and kerosene, with his eyes turned toward the ground. That is a sure way to stay alive in Colombia’s Dodge City. Only one Turbo official ever had visions of becoming Wyatt Earp, and he is dead. He was the captain of the port of Turbo, and three years ago he tried to stop the cokers. The captain was shot dead in the town square at noon. His assassins were never apprehended. There were no witnesses. The men of Turbo continue to drink with their heads lowered.

One of Thatcher’s banana-boat captains calls Turbo “the end of the world.” It is a good place for a gringo to get mugged while trying to freelance cocaine.

But getting coke aboard a banana boat is no problem for Colombia’s cocaine cartel. It takes 30 hours, 100 Colombian stevedores and Thatcher’s 20-man crew to load one boat with bananas. It takes only a modest tip paid to the right Colombian customs inspector to get a stash aboard.

“Anyone with a raft or a canoe,” admits Thatcher, “has access to our ships.” One DEA agent who has been to Turbo and gives the cokers there considerable credit believes they could load a submarine.

Thatcher, the Colombians and our own narcs have tried everything to peel the Banana Boat Connection. There was one effort to leave only one door on the ship open, but that proved inefficient. There was also an attempt to restrict the crews’ shore leave and forbid them a chance to see their women friends. That nearly provoked a mutiny.

The Colombians have beefed up their customs detail in Turbo, but duty there is considered as attractive as Vietnam. Most Colombians just sit tight in Turbo and wait for their tour to expire.

The narcs who cover the Miami waterfront are more enthusiastic. There’s something about this cat-and-mouse game through an oily, grimy, hot banana boat hull that warms the cockles of a narc’s heart. The whole thing is reminiscent of Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” and, what the hell, it’s taxpayer financed.

“We study them and they study us,” explained one narc. “We know their modus operandi and they know ours. Most of the mules aren’t dumb. They send scouts out to the ship’s bridge with binoculars. Sometimes we’re eyeball to eyeball. The whole thing is fun.”

The narcs don’t like to lose at this game, but the odds are against them by virtue of their numbers. It takes six narcs at least half a day to thoroughly search a banana boat. That’s more men than Customs can regularly afford. Customs has to settle for surveillance of crew members and spot checks.

John Thatcher also takes the Banana Boat Connection to heart. He’s done everything he could to destroy it. For years, Thatcher tried to strike at the cokers with the vengeance of Frankenstein trying to slay his monster. There were times that Thatcher couldn’t sleep at night, so he tried tongue-lashing the crew. Behind his back, in Spanish, they laughed, so Thatcher began to fire them. He fired anyone suspected of being a mule, from sailors to their captains. The turnover rate on Thatcher’s ship soared to over 100 percent a year.

In one of his more desperate moments, Thatcher spent several thousand dollars employing sleuth Ivan Nachman to go to Colombia and break up the smuggling ring. Nachman is a former Miami constable who was raiding lockers at Miami High, searching for heroin, when he wasn’t testing bulletproof vests in his office with a Smith & Wesson .38. Nachman’s search for heroin produced four ounces of grass. His search for a perfect bulletproof vest produced a few holes in the walls of his office.

Nachman left Thatcher’s headquarters for Colombia armed with his sunglasses, his cover as a photojournalist and a sense of bravado developed in the years when copping a few joints from a hippie was considered a big bust. Nachman returned with a portfolio of glossy pictures of the Colombian countryside, an equally flashy bill and no significant new information. The Banana Boat Connection continued undisturbed.

Along the Miami River, John West Thatcher is sometimes called the “man who smuggles bananas and imports cocaine.” The tag used to make Thatcher angry. Now, in an unguarded moment, he can talk about cocaine and laugh.

Forty-six pounds of coke was recently seized near Thatcher’s ship Oro Verde, which in Spanish means “green gold.” Thatcher now thinks he may rename the ship Oro Blanco, or “white gold.”

High Times Magazine, September 1978

Read the full issue here.

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