By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
"We had a bunch of boxes, fish boxes, and long lines thrown around on the deck," Chong recalls of the first sea voyage to Jamaica. "It looked like a working boat. Customs had notified DEA in Jamaica that we were coming, just to make sure it wasn't a double rip - us trying to get the dope and DEA involved in trying to sell it; both good guys doing the same thing. Which has happened before." Once Chong and Rick Swarnes arrived at the municipal dock in Ocho Rios, however, things started to go wrong. A fierce storm that had battered the trawler on the way over threatened to become all the more dangerous on the return trip. And on the day the cop and the smuggler arrived in Jamaica, the island's telephone operators went on strike. It became almost impossible to place an overseas call.
"We call [Carl Brandon], but he hasn't heard anything," Chong remembers. "We try to call the Colombian, but it's hard to get out. We finally get through to Colombia, and they say they're having a little bit of a problem there. We said `Hey, look, we can't stay very long. We got a seven-day pass, that's it.' They say, `All right, all right, all right, just hang in there.'"
That evening an unidentified Jamaican called the hotel where Chong and Swarnes were staying, naming a time and place for a rendezvous. The informant and the Homestead cop were carrying neither guns nor cash - their role would be to simply transport the cocaine to Miami, then receive a fee of $1000 to $2000 per kilo for the smuggling job. "Me and [Swarnes] walk out to where they told us to be. This guy comes up in a pickup truck, we jump in, and he hauls ass. Now, [U.S. Customs agents] can't follow us, 'cause they're all on foot. And I don't know where he's taking us. I don't know if he's taking us out in the woods to shoot us or what he's going to do. Anyway, he rides around for a little and he parks. And he talks, asking about the boat. We say, `Yeah, we're all ready. This is the best time to do it because U.S. Coast Guard won't be out in that storm, and we'll head right through it, they're not going to stop us in this weather.' Then he dropped the bombshell. He told us he could not secure the airstrip, and would be forced to cancel the shipment." Frustrated, Swarnes and Chong headed home. But not before a boatload of Jamaican Customs officials approached the scruffy-looking pair and offered to load their trawler with bales of cheap marijuana. Chong politely declined.
Back in Miami, after a lull of a month or so during which it seemed the deal had fallen apart, the Colombian broker wired $15,000 to Chong and Swarnes to hire a crew for a return trip to Jamaica. "Before we got any front money, Customs had pretty much decided the Colombians were playing around on us," Chong recalls. "They were surprised when we got the $35,000 to start with. And when we got the additional $15,000 they were real happy again. It's gotta go now, they were thinking. Finally Brandon and the Colombian started saying, `Come on down.' I said, `Are you sure?' They would say, `Yes, come on down.' I would say, `Are you sure?' Finally I think they're ready. They're going to do it."
This time, however, Chong stayed in Miami to help coordinate by telephone the drug transfer in Jamaica with the Colombian, who by now seemed to trust Chong completely. "He's getting real personal with me now," Chong recalls. "He's inviting me down to Panama and South America for parties." Instead of Chong, Homestead sent Sgt. Scott Kennedy, another of the city's veteran SWAT team members with ample experience in undercover operations. Kennedy, feeling strangely naked without a gun - Jamaican law prohibits foreign law enforcement officials from carrying them on the island - stepped off the trawler in Ocho Rios the third week of October. The first sight to greet his eyes was a bloody knife fight between two men arguing over a coconut.
At their hotel near the docks, Brandon introduced Kennedy and Swarnes to the nervous Colombian pilot who had flown 400 kilos of cocaine into a Jamaican airstrip. All four men were eager for the cargo to start its journey to Miami. Brandon escorted the party to a roadhouse he owned a few miles down the coast from Ocho Rios. He pointed out a cliff jutting from a mountainside, and instructed Kennedy to bring the fishing boat there a half mile offshore that same night. Brandon and Kennedy agreed on a radio frequency they would use for any communications. "The last thing the pilot told us was that the Jamaicans had stolen 100 keys," Kennedy recalls. "But what are we going to do, report them? We had to take what we got, and we wound up with 300 keys."
An hour after sundown, with the running lights of the trawler turned off, Kennedy, Swarnes, and three undercover U.S. Customs agents cut their diesel engines a few hundred yards off the Jamaican coast. Within minutes they heard the sound of a small outboard motor. Then the prow of a long dugout canoe poked through the moonless gloom. Kennedy jumped down into the dugout and helped hoist the first of sixteen duffel bags onto the trawler. When the last one was on board, Kennedy shook hands with the two men before they sped away. Hours later, the cops and the duffel bags were sitting in the belly of a military cargo plane, taking off from the U.S. Navy's base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The operation was right on schedule.