Robert Platshorn was a hostage, all right, but you wouldn't have known it from the lush Caribbean scenery outside his hotel window. You wouldn't have figured it from his carefree fishing excursions for marlin and sailfish on luxury yachts or from the big fat joints of Colombia's finest marijuana that continually protruded from his lips.
But a hostage he was, human collateral for a two-and-half-ton load of Santa Marta Gold that was slowly making its way up Colombia's Rio Magdalena on a large wooden raft called a bungo.
Its destination: South Florida. Its value: $1.4 million, minus the $30,000 in bad drug debts this load was supposed to cover, the $300,000 to be paid to the Colombian supplier, and the $200,000 for transportation. And until Platshorn's cohorts took possession of the marijuana and a bank transaction was completed, a captive Platshorn remained, comfortably ensconced in an opulent suite at a hotel on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
His partners were supposed to fly the load back to Florida in the cargo hold of a DC-3, a reliable old plane that made its name carrying supplies and troops during World War II. Then, once all the pot was sold and the money was deposited in an account, his "captors" would release him.
Platshorn wasn't worried. Stoned, yes — thoroughly baked, in fact, and intimately acquainted with the goods he was soon to transport — but not worried.
This was just business, and good business wasn't violent, not in the mid-Seventies, when Platshorn ran his transcontinental racket. Marijuana suppliers were family-run enterprises mediated by political figures and local law enforcement intent on keeping a lid on the trade while lining their own pockets. And he trusted his partners. They were his stoner buddies, and he knew they'd come through for him.
"It was a hippie era," Platshorn says. "You tell a guy you'll pay him $1 million, you pay him."
Those were the years before the cocaine blizzard swallowed South Florida, and Platshorn was just an entrepreneurial pothead leading the 007 existence he'd always dreamed of — and smoking some really good weed while he was at it.
Back in Florida, he had a handful of yachts at his disposal. From a posh suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, he operated an auto auction, a marina club, and a barbershop. He used canal-front stash houses and wore stylish plaid leisure suits with broad collars as sharp as spearheads.
The real cash cow, of course, wasn't the barbershop or the auction. It was the Santa Marta Gold — the finest grass coming into South Florida.
The plan all along was to make $1 million smuggling the stuff and then get out while the gettin' was good. But like most best-laid plans — and that ill-fated load drifting up the Rio Magdalena — nothing ever goes the way it's supposed to.
When shipments of marijuana landed at clandestine jungle airstrips, or a yacht rendezvoused with a mothership on the open sea, DEA agents frequently heard the code words black tuna crackle over the radio. Platshorn didn't choose the sobriquet. It was the DEA that dubbed his ragtag group of stoners the Black Tuna Gang. And soon the Tunas — and Platshorn himself — would become legendary figures in drug-smuggling lore.
Platshorn and friends would be accused of smuggling, or at least attempting to smuggle, 500 tons of marijuana into the United States during the mid- to late Seventies. When the gang was busted in September 1978, the DEA proclaimed it the most sophisticated drug ring it had ever encountered.
Platshorn's 1980 conviction was a major coup for drug enforcement agencies, the first joint FBI/DEA enterprise. In all, eight of the gang's central members were convicted in two federal trials, but the leaders — Platshorn and Robert Meinster — would pay the stiffest price: prison sentences totaling 108 years between them.
On April Fool's Day this year, Platshorn was released to a halfway house in West Palm Beach after 28 years in the pen. He has absolutely nothing to show for his stint as one of America's most wanted smugglers: no money, no job, little remaining family. A benefit concert for Platshorn, sponsored by High Times, hasn't been able to secure a venue, and a book he wrote in prison on an old typewriter, The Black Tuna Diaries, hasn't been picked up by a publisher.
But there is the Black Tuna myth, and Platshorn is eager to peddle it. He told his story to New Times — about the good ol' days of trafficking and how it went so terribly wrong. Through interviews with DEA agents, academics, and attorneys involved in the two trials that sank the Black Tuna Gang, and after hundreds of pages of court documents, old newspaper articles, and Platshorn's manuscript were scrutinized, an image of "Bobby Tuna" began to emerge from the smoke and coke-lined mirrors of three decades of drug enforcement. Platshorn might have been a hippie at heart, but the traffickers who replaced him were a far more ruthless breed. Owing to their innovations in large-scale smuggling, the Black Tunas unwittingly paved the way for today's vicious drug game and the law enforcement practices that paradoxically fuel it.