Miami Is the Capital of Deadly ATF Stings: 130 Charged, 7 Killed

Miami is chock full of more cocaine than a Mexican narco-piñata. And yet, the city's most dangerous drug may just be imaginary.

According to an investigation by USA Today, Miami is the main staging ground for controversial ATF sting operations in which undercover agents trick suspects into plotting robberies of fictional drug stash houses. The ATF operations have netted at least 130 suspects in Miami-Dade, nearly a quarter of those prosecuted nationwide.

But the investigation also raises questions about why several such raids have gone horribly wrong here in Miami.

See also: Miami-Dade Police Lured Robbers to the Redland, Then Shot Them

The USA Today investigation, published June 28, found that the ATF had arrested more than twice as many suspects in Miami using stash house set-ups than in the second-place city, Chicago (52).

Surprisingly, Broward County was third with 50 prosecutions, more than both Phoenix (34) and L.A. (27). That means South Florida makes up 30 percent of the national total. In other words, a helluva lot of local robbers are getting duped into plotting to steal drugs that don't actually exist.

That's probably due to the sheer quantity of genuine drugs that flow through South Florida. Just last week, the Coast Guard unloaded $19 million worth of confiscated cocaine at the Port of Miami.

Incredibly, Miami (and Miami-Dade Police) appears to account for all seven of the fatalities reported as a result of ATF stash house operations.

Last year, New Times investigated an ATF-led raid that went horribly wrong here in Miami. Five members of a home invasion crew were lured to what they thought was a drug dealer's stash house in the Redland. Instead, a team of Miami-Dade Police snipers was waiting for them. Four of the robbers were shot and killed, despite the fact that they never fired a shot.

During our investigation, New Times requested MDPD's rules of engagements for such operations, but we were denied. Instead, we were told that the operation was carefully planned and professionally executed.

But the USA Today investigation suggests that the deadly MDPD raid was out of line with ATF policy. "The ATF steers the takedowns to remote places such as forest preserves or warehouses where it's easier to take suspects by surprise and where stray bullets won't endanger the public," the article says.

The June 30, 2011 operation occurred in a residential neighborhood of the Redland, however. More important, the robbers were allowed to get out of their car, whereas videos of ATF raids in other parts of the country show suspects safely apprehended inside their vehicles.

Another ATF-led operation that turned deadly here in Miami happened September 7, 2006. Miami-Dade Police detectives staged an elaborate setup. Using a confidential informant, they tricked six career criminals into thinking a tractor-trailer with 80 kilos of cocaine was parked behind a Medley warehouse. The robbers arrived wearing fake FBI and DEA shirts. Two of them, with guns in their hands, approached the truck and screamed "DEA" and "FBI." That's when the real cops opened fire. Three suspects were killed, again, despite never discharging their weapons.

Are Miami-Dade Police quicker to pull the trigger than other departments? Or is it simply a question of numbers, with more raids in Miami leading to more deadly confrontations? It's hard to tell when MDPD has yet to release its own report on the 2011 raid.

These fake stash house stings were pioneered here in Miami during the Cocaine Cowboys era, according to USA Today. Unfortunately, it appears as if the tactics have ultimately become more deadly here as well.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.