By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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As they drove toward home, an effervescent Swarnes talked nonstop about his meeting in Panama with five Colombian cocaine producers. It was just the kind of high-flying audacity at which Swarnes excelled, and Chong was more than a little disappointed he hadn't witnessed it. "At first they wanted him to go to Colombia, but he refused," Chong recalls. "We couldn't ask them to come to Miami or Puerto Rico, because it would have looked like we were trying to lure them into U.S. territory. We asked to meet in Jamaica, and the guy said he couldn't meet us there. He wouldn't explain why. So finally [Swarnes] goes to Panama, where all the options are discussed. Options from air drops to flying a plane to Colombia and picking it up, to flying a plane to Jamaica. Plan A seemed to be that a plane from Colombia and a plane from Miami would land simultaneously on a Jamaican airstrip, transfer the stuff, and take off again. They discussed radio frequencies, refueling, lots of things. But mainly they were checking him out. This is the guy who will be transporting their merchandise. They wanted to see if he knew his shit."
Both Homestead Police Chief Curtis Ivy and Chong's immediate boss, Maj. Chuck Habermehl, had vetoed Chong's plan to accompany Swarnes into Panama. "I was supposed to be on the trip, but my higher-ups thought it was kind of risky. There's no back-up down there. I would have been acting as a civilian, like a tourist. Customs wouldn't be there."
One reason U.S. Customs agents didn't attend the Panama meeting is that the agency never knew about the encounter until a year later, when it was described to them in an interview. While Chong claims Swarnes's plane ticket to Panama was paid for by "the government," Customs says it definitely did not reimburse the informant. Sources suggest that Chong, eager for the operation to move forward, probably paid the tab out of his own pocket. Customs agents also didn't learn, until weeks after the Panama trip, that Chong and Swarnes had moved in together. When asked about the unorthodox approach, one veteran federal undercover agent noted, "We don't move in with informants. It's not a good thing to get in the habit of doing. Did Chong get in too deep? Probably. And sometimes that's what it takes."
It also required some hardware. In early September, Chong convinced his superiors that the Homestead Police Department should purchase an aviation fuel pump and ship it to Jamaica for use in the drug operation. The request arose out of yet another overseas trip by Swarnes, this time to Chong's native land. In Jamaica, Swarnes met with Carl Brandon, a prominent businessman and suspected drug dealer from Ocho Rios, to discuss further details regarding how the shipment from Colombia would be handled. An old military airstrip near the city had been chosen for landing the planes from Colombia and Miami, but refueling threatened to become troublesome. "It was a seven-hour flight from Colombia, and they needed to refuel to go back," Chong explains. "So we had to have fuel for them once they got there, and fuel for us in Jamaica. And we had to get a pump to pump the fuel, which you can't buy in Jamaica. So we bought a pump up here with a long hose, and shipped it down there to take care of this problem."
But when Chong and Swarnes finally went to Jamaica together to pick up the cocaine, they traveled not by airplane but by commercial fishing boat - with undercover Customs agents acting as crew and skipper. Shortly after the police-purchased fuel pump arrived on the island, Carl Brandon called Chong and Swarnes to say Plan A had fallen through.
Previously, Brandon had felt sure he could bribe the necessary officials in the Jamaican military to guarantee the security of the airstrip. Now something had happened to make him doubt his abilities. So Brandon and the Colombian broker proposed flying the cocaine into another, undisclosed airfield, where it would be unloaded and hidden. Chong and Swarnes would then pick up the cocaine and transport it to Miami by boat, where they would use it as bait. After the broker's stateside associates had paid Chong for his smuggling services, Homestead police and Customs agents would arrest the broker's Miami connections and arrange for the seizure of Brandon in Jamaica.
By the time Chong and Swarnes set sail for Jamaica in a weather-beaten trawler, the Homestead Police Department had more than covered its debt for the fuel pump. Following a series of increasingly strident demands by Chong and Swarnes, the Colombian broker telephoned to say he was dispatching an emissary from New York to bring them $35,000 in front money to pay the crew of the fishing boat and help defray other expenses. On a bright afternoon in mid-September of last year, Faustino Contreras-Ordonez walked into La Carreta Restaurant on SW Eighth Street with two shopping bags filled with 50s and 100s. After a ride down the turnpike in Swarnes's car - with Chong frantically following close behind - Contreras-Ordonez turned over the money to Swarnes in a Howard Johnson motel room in Homestead and flew back to New York. The cash was only a taste of what was to come.