The Mariel Boat-Lift, by Hunter S. Thompson

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The Mariel Boat-Lift, by Hunter S. Thompson

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 8:58 pm

THE MARIEL BOAT-LIFT, by Hunter S. Thompson
from Songs of the Doomed, Copyright 1990 by Hunter S. Thompson

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“The Silk Road” is a story about people who got caught in the fast and violent undercurrents and, finally, the core of the action of the great Cuba-to-Key West Freedom Flotilla in the spring of 1980 -- a bizarre and massively illegal “sea lift” which involved literally thousands of small private boats that brought more than 100,000 very volatile Cuban refugees to this country in less than three months and drastically altered the social, political, and economic realities of South Florida for the rest of this century.

By 1980, the billion-dollar drug-smuggling industry and influx of Latin-American millionaire refugees had turned Miami into the Hong Kong of the Western World and the cash capital of the United States. It was also the nation's murder capital, with a boomtown economy based on the smuggling of everything from drugs and gold bullion to guns and human beings. What Havana was to the 1950s, Marseilles to the '60s, and Bangkok to the '70s, Miami is to the '80s.

The Freedom Flotilla began on April Fools Day. In less than two weeks the Coast Guard had abandoned all hope of stopping the boat traffic; the port of Key West was overwhelmed, and any boat longer than fifteen feet was for sale or rent. Cubans from Miami roamed the bars and local docks with fistfuls of hundred dollar bills, and drug smugglers had already begun to take advantage of the general confusion and the helplessness of the Coast Guard. Not even the White House or the U.S. Marines could stop the tidal wave of Cubans pouring into South Florida.

To accelerate the exodus of refugees already granted asylum at the Peruvian embassy in Havana, Castro put out the word: Miami's Cubans could take out one relative for every four refugees taken from Cuba to America. The reaction of the Miami Cuban community was near hysteria. The 150-mile length of Highway A1A -- from Key West to Miami -- became strangled by a huge caravan of destitute refugees in busloads with blacked-out windows, headed north; and the southbound lane was jammed with Cuban Americans towing a strange armada of fiberglass speedboats, cabin cruisers, and ungainly fishing boats .... All this in a constant frenzy of traffic through police and military roadblocks all along the way.

***

As the traffic jam got worse, pockets of stranded people began to build up in places along the way. There was simply no way to move on the highway without risk or delay.

People who lived in the Keys were afraid to go anywhere at all: you could go out for a drink on Wednesday night and not get back home until Friday. What was “easy money” in April became a shit rain by May ... but by that time the thing was out of control; and the going price for refugees was still $1,000 a head.

The locals began turning on each other, and growing resentment over the Cuban refugee invasion was compounded by constant TV news bulletins about the national humiliation of the Iran Hostage Crisis. People began carrying guns and hunkering down wherever they could be sure of getting a drink.

One of these pockets of doom along Highway A1A was an isolated fishing resort called Spanish Key Lodge, about twenty miles up the island chain from Key West -- a sprawling, run-down motel and marina with its own airstrip and a twenty-four-hour liquor license, owned by a former prosecutor from Philadelphia named Frank Mont, who came to the Keys to get rich.

The chaos of the Cuban refugee invasion and the resulting nightmare at Spanish Key is the baseline of the narrative: a once-lazy backwater fishing resort is transmogrified, overnight, into a seething fortress of thieves, smugglers, and criminally insane Cuban refugees, who soon take it over completely, by force of sheer numbers.

***

The raw elements of the story are (in no special order): sex, violence, greed, treachery, big money, fast boats, blue water, Cuba, CIA politics, Fidel Castro's sense of humor, one murder, several rapes, heavy gambling, massive drug smuggling, naked women, mean dogs, total breakdown of law and order, huge public cash transactions, the Iran Hostage Crisis, overloaded boats catching fire and sinking at night in the Gulf Stream, the nervous breakdown of a U.S. Coast Guard commander, fast cars running roadblocks on Highway A1A, savage brawls in Key West bars, Boog Powell, sunken treasure, wild runs on the ocean at night, personality disintegration, desperate wagering on NBA playoff (TV) games and 1980 presidential primaries, a grim and violent look at American politics in the eighties, dangerously tangled love affairs, warm nights and full moons, one hurricane, stolen credit cards, false passports, deep-cover CIA agents, the U.S. Marines, a jailbreak in Key West at the peak of the refugee invasion, political corruption in South Florida, the emergence of Miami as the Hong Kong of the Western World, Colombian coke dealers, crooked shrimp-fishermen, scuba diving with shotguns (powerheads, mounted on spears) ... and all the other aspects of high crime, bad craziness, and human degradation that emerged from that strange and shameful episode in our history.

I could list a few more, on request .... but this seems like enough, for now. The true story of the Freedom Flotilla is weird enough, on its own, to be a good book if it were written as pure and factual journalism. And the fact that I happened to be there at the time, with my own boat, almost convinced me to write it that way.

But there was not enough room in a journalistic format for the characters I wanted. So I finally decided to write the story as a novel, told in the first person by a narrator who is also a main character and who speaks from a POV not unlike that of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby -- and Gene Skinner, the main character and high-rolling protagonist of The Silk Road, may in fact be a lineal descendant of Jay Gatsby, in a different time and a very different place.

Gene Skinner is a professional adventurer who worked in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot for a CIA-owned property called Air America and who now lives (at the time of the Freedom Flotilla) with his beautiful half-Cuban fiancée in a double-wide Airstream mobile home in a trailer park on Marathon key ... which is nine worlds away from Long Island in every way except that it sits on the edge of the sea and fits Skinner's idea of The American Dream in the same way that West Egg fit Gatsby's.

And Skinner's hired fiancée, Anita, is an ex-debutante from Miami whose life has been changed more than once by her own strange lust ... which need not be described, at this time, but will figure strongly in the story.

There was no way I could fit an exotic creature like Anita into a purely journalistic story about the Freedom Flotilla -- and no way I can describe her in a 1,000-word outline, either. The odd and eventually unspeakable “love triangle” involving Anita, Gene Skinner, and The Narrator is one aspect of the story that I think we can save for later .... Except to say that Bill Buckley and all the rest of those lame masturbators who've been whipping on me for “not writing about sex” are about to get what they wanted. Or at least what they need.

In any case, these are the main characters in a story of free enterprise gone amok in the tropics. The narrator goes to Key West (Chap. 1) to cover a boat race and to do some scuba diving with his old friend Gene Skinner, but the boat race is disrupted when the whole city of Key West is plunged into a feeding frenzy by what amounts to a hurricane of suddenly available cash. Anybody who can get his hands on a boat seaworthy enough to make the ninety mile run over to Cuba can make $1,000 a head for every refugee he brings back.

Which was true, for a while, and a lot of local boat captains got instantly rich on the refugee traffic. I was on the Coast Guard pier in Key West one night when a huge cruise boat called The Viking Starship came in with 500 passengers. It looked like a scene from the last days of the war in Vietnam. The crew was armed, the refugees were being herded into pens by U.S. Marines with bullhorns and spotlights, and huge fines were being levied on boat captains who came in with illegal refugees.

But not all of them were technically illegal, and in the chaos on the docks it was impossible to sort out the legal ones from all the others. Castro, in a flash of high humor, had turned what began as a political embarrassment for Cuba into a nightmare for the U.S. by emptying his jails and insane asylums and loading the boats in Mariel Bay with all the “undesirables” he could round up.

These were the ones the Coast Guard were doing their best to arrest and detain on the pier of Key West -- and these were also the ones that boat captains were being fined $1,000 a head for bringing in.

Skinner's idea, then, was to use the narrator's boat to off-load the most obvious of these undesirables from bigger boats, out at sea, and bring them in somewhere else -- for $500 a head, instead of $1,000. The math, laws, and logistics of the scheme are too complex to explain here ....

The place where we decided to bring them in was the marina at Spanish Key Lodge, where they would be immediately crammed into rental cars and sent up the road to Miami. The idea was to skim off the scum, as it were, and smuggle them through the undermanned roadblocks like so many bales of marijuana.

Which worked well enough, for a while, but the scheme began coming apart when Key West ran out of rental cars and a nasty backlog of refugees started building up at the headquarters of the operation at Spanish Key.

The situation becomes more and more intolerable as the rooms and cabins fill up with a nasty crowd of stranded refugees and paranoid drug smugglers. The whole place turns into a madhouse, a wild microcosm of the larger madness in Key West. Gangs of Cuban thugs roam the grounds and naked prostitutes lounge by the swimming pool. Fights break out between the Cubans and the smugglers. The Lodge runs short of food and refugees begin stealing chickens from local backyards and roasting them over driftwood bonfires on the beach.

The local police are too busy controlling street crime in Key West to respond to the increasingly desperate phone calls from Frank Mont, the owner of Spanish Key Lodge, who is slowly going to pieces under the strain of trying to control the lawless mob that has taken over his resort. He is afraid to sleep and begins living on a diet of cocaine and Chivas Regal. His family flees to Miami, leaving him to run the Lodge with a flaky skeleton staff of dope addicts and rummies.

The only nonlethal forms of amusement for the criminal mob at the Lodge are orgies, wild boat races in the bay, and frantic gambling on TV basketball games and the presidential primaries. Thousands of dollars change hands in the bar every night. Mont is going broke and fears for his life.

The first half of the story is basically a building process and a tale of wild humor, fast boats, and big profits -- along with a relentlessly cranked-up tale of day-to-day events in the eye of the human hurricane at the Lodge -- but the humor suddenly gets thin when a mid-level character (a local politico named Colonel Evans -- USAF Ret.) gets killed in a sudden gunfight in the bar at Spanish Key, while raging at a TV special on the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Gene Skinner, whose CIA background is one of the continuing mysteries of the story, is accused of the murder by Frank Mont, who finally goes over the edge.

Skinner flees to Cuba, leaving his girlfriend and the narrator to run the Scum-Lift operation, which eventually gets busted and cleaned out by the U.S. Marines. Frank Mont is arrested for Trading With The Enemy [*] and is sentenced to nineteen years in prison and the Lodge is destroyed by fire in the midst of a hurricane.

Meanwhile -- before the holocaust -- the narrator and Anita receive a desperate radio call from Skinner and set off in the narrator's boat to rescue him off a rocky beach in Cuba, where he's hiding from Russian soldiers .... This is the climax of the story, but not quite the end. There is one more brutal twist to come.

But we'll save that. This is all ye know (for now) and all ye need to know. Selah.

THE MURDER OF COLONEL EVANS

Our room-service bills are massive -- Frank is now in a state of frantic, drunken fear. He is a prosecutor from Philadelphia who bought the Lodge five years ago on a whim and got himself on a very strange train; he became -- with his magic marina and his private airstrip -- a man of leverage in a business he knew nothing about except that if he ever got arrested for what he was doing there was no doubt at all that his picture would be on the front page of the next day's Miami Herald, over a headline saying: FEDS BUST CUD JOE CONNECTION; RINGLEADER SEIZED WITH 2 TONS -- DISBARRED PHILADELPHIA PROSECUTOR NAMED AS MAIN LINK IN KEY WEST MIAMI DRUG PIPELINE.

Frank had come to grips with this reality.

But five years in the Keys had made him a serious bigot on the question of Cubans (not “Castro” -- but Cubans). The mayor of Cud Joe was alleged to be Cuban and Frank brooded constantly on what he called the Cuban Cancer ....

So now he was half mad with rage and greed at the sight of his lodge filling up with illegal Cuban refugees.

And also with drugs -- the Sunday hurricane that knocked out the TV cable for the basketball games had also ripped the huge U.S. Navy observation blimp out of its moorings on Cud Joe Key and sent it off at 80 mph in the general direction of Cuba. The blimp was the Navy's eye in the sky, scanning the whole southern horizon of the Caribbean twenty-four hours a day with NASA-style cameras that could take stunningly detailed photos of Havana Harbor -- and fatally detailed photos of any boat on the ocean within 100 miles of Florida. Smugglers feared the blimp -- and they rejoiced when the hurricane blew it away.

The Freedom Flotilla was now joined by literally hundreds of boats full of weed, coke, and Quaaludes from Colombia.

The Coast Guard was totally tied up with the Cubans (50,000 by now) and the seas were open for smugglers.

We now had nine rooms rented -- and out-front smugglers were operating out of at least ten more.

Frank was sinking deeper into fear and still no Avis cars or anything else -- except one or two strays every day from no-shows, so we kept going out to meet Steve's boats full of dangerous Cubans.

They got weirder and weirder. These people were nobody's relatives -- they were the first wave of the criminally insane that Castro had decided to set free.

They were not easy people to board at Frank's place while we scavenged for cars to ship these savage buggers off to Miami.

They began to drink heavily in their rooms, screaming all night and lying around the pool during the day (hookers, cockfights, brawls). Finally they got into the bar; they drank on our bill and Frank was too far in the hole to object.

Our bill for less than three weeks was already $9,000 — and now with nine rooms and two suites rented and anywhere from fifteen to fifty-five hysterical Cubans eating and drinking on our bill at any given time, we were running a tab with Frank of about $1,000 day. The place became a sleepless nightmare of gambling and fighting and nervous breakdowns ... along with the constant loading and unloading of ton-level weekly shipments by a crew of at least twenty top professionals working twenty-four hours a day.

The place hummed constantly with movement -- either scammers moving their loads or us moving our Cubans.

The whole compound -- the Lodge and the marina and all the rooms and grounds -- was also alive with cocaine, which compounded and lent frenzy to the prevailing madness.

I never slept. Despite the violent ravings of Colonel Evans and other conch regulars at the bar, we still managed to bring in two loads a day, but we were building up a dangerous backlog in the Lodge because we still couldn't move them out fast enough to Miami.

Frank appeared to be losing his grip — we now had sixteen rooms on our tab and the dopers had all the others. Millions of dollars' worth of illegal contraband was moving out of his parking lot every day, along with dozens of what he now knew to be criminally insane Cuban convicts, lepers, and spies.

He was $8,000 down to me on the NBA playoffs at this point; the local sheriff was warning him that things were getting out of control: too many Cubans, too much dope, too much traffic for anybody's off-season ... and the governor was appointing a special prosecutor to investigate “drugs and corruption” in the Keys (see Miami Herald series: April '80).

It was too much. On paper the Lodge was functioning at supermaximum capacity. The dopers were paying $500 a night for every room that was empty the next morning -- a long-standing arrangement that had made Frank rich almost by accident in the five years since he'd come down from New York -- but the dopers refused to pay until the weed was out of the room and on the road ... they had a dozen boats waiting full of marijuana out there in the mangrove creeks; waiting for an empty room at the marina.

But it was too dangerous to move the weed now -- roadblocks everywhere, 600 border patrol agents imported from Texas to “screen Cubans” -- Marines in Jeeps on the streets, TV cameras everywhere ... and no Avis cars for our Cubans.

Convoys of freshly painted black buses moved by on the highway at all hours. There was so much traffic in and out of the Boca Chica Naval Air Station that the air for ten miles in both directions was so heavy with jet fuel you had to close the windows and punch Max AC just to breathe air.

They were moving the refugees up to north Florida and Arkansas now -- there was no more room in Miami and Alabama was closed to refugees.

This ugly limbo was in full force at the Lodge when the TV brought us news of Carter's failed Rescue Attempt in Iran -- total rage and despair.

Colonel Evans cried after hearing the first bulletins and he threatened to blow Skinner's head off for calling it all a bad joke. The colonel was seriously shaken. "This is the worst tragedy for the human race since the killing of Christ," he told us one afternoon in the bar.

"Bullshit," said Skinner. "It's two thousand years of white trash dumbness."

"You evil bastard!" Evans screamed. "You can mock everything else in this world -- but you can't mock this!" (he raged back from the bar). "Those men gave their lives!"

"So what?" said Skinner. Evans went visibly stiff at the bar and nobody laughed. "So what?" Skinner said again. "Who asked for their lives, Colonel? Who needs their fucking lives!"

There was a high wild edge in his voice that I hadn't heard in a while. He kept his eyes on the blank TV set while he talked.

"They didn't give their lives, Colonel -- they wasted their lives!" He was suddenly on his feet and pointing a finger at Evans. "Those men failed, Colonel! They blew the mission! They killed each other for no good reason at all ... " He smacked both palms on the bar .... "And you don't know the difference, do you?" He stared at Evans. "You don't know the fucking difference!" He was screaming now and so was Colonel Evans.

"God damn you!" the old man blurted ... and then he raised a big chrome-plated automatic and fired point blank at Skinner.

One shot, like a bomb going off in the room -- a blank white shock of a noise that paralyzed everybody. Skinner disappeared without a sound and the rest of us scrambled around on the floor for what seemed like eighty or ninety terrible seconds ... until we heard the second shot and I looked up just in time to see the colonel die on his feet as another deafening blast of gunfire lit up the room. Colonel Evans walked backward away from the bar for two steps and then fell facedown on the tile floor with both hands dangling at his sides. His body fell almost on top of me, hitting with a nasty, dead-sounding thump that shook the whole room.

For a moment nobody moved -- and then everybody moved, including Skinner. "Jesus Christ," he muttered. "Who did that?"

The bar was suddenly empty. No Cubans, no dopers -- just me and Skinner and Frank and the high smell of cordite -- and Colonel Evans, bleeding quietly from three or four holes. "Mother of God," said Frank. "I don't need this shit." He was leaning with both arms on the bar, looking down at the colonel's body.

Skinner was already gone .... Evans had somehow missed him at point-blank range; but at least one other person in the room had not missed.

"Those Cuban bastards!" Frank said quietly. "They shot him fifteen times." He looked up at me, tears rolling down from his eyes. "That's it for you, Jacko," he said. "Take your scum and get out of this place!" He banged on the bar with his fist. "Right now!" he screamed. "Get out! You bastards can't murder people in my place!"

I picked up a long-handled broom from the end of the bar and hit him, a two-handed shot on the back of his head. He fell forward and I hit him again, swinging the broom like an axe. He fell on the duckboards, screaming. "No! Please! No!"

"You shot him," I said. "You warned him first, then you killed him."

"What?"

I rattled the handful of 9mm auto casings I'd picked off the floor. “You shot him,” I said. “These are your bullets.”

“What?” He was walleyed with shock and confusion.

I walked around the bar and got a cold Heineken out of the cooler. “Where's your weapon?” I asked him. I knew he had a SM #59 behind the bar; he'd showed it to me several times since we'd been there.

“Fuck you,” he snapped. “It's right here -- and it's clean!” He lifted the 9mm auto out of the cash-register drawer and held it up to show me.

I took it from him and fired two shots into Colonel Evans' body. The noise almost blinded me, and Frank went down to his knees with a groan.

I wiped off the gun with a wet bar towel and handed it back to him ... but he backed away.

“Here,” I said. “It's loaded. Take it.”

He backed farther away from me, so I put the gun down on the bar. “You better do it now,” I said. “I'm going back to the room.” I smiled as I walked away. "You're a lawyer," I said. "You know how to handle a witness ..."

His eyes were wild and bright. "No"' he said finally -- still crouching away from the gun. "No! I didn't!"

I shrugged and walked out to the parking lot. The sun was hot and nobody else was around the office as I passed and went
into the trees to keep out of sight on my way to the room. The door was locked, but it opened before I could use my key ... the girl was standing there in the dark hallway, wearing a blue string bikini and looking about thirteen years old.

"Gene's gone to Cuba," she said calmly. "He said he'd call on the radio." I nodded and put the chain on the door, then I hung out the DO NOT DISTURB flag and turned on the TV.

"Call room service," I said. "We need food and whiskey."

She shook her head and sat down on the bed beside me. "What happened?" she said. "Gene wouldn't tell me."

"Frank will," I said; and just as I said it the phone rang.

"How's your boat running?" he asked.

"Fine," I said. "We'll need club sandwiches and a quart of gin ... and some tonic; I have limes and ice on the boat."

There was no response for a moment, then he said, "Okay ... nobody knows; we just dump him ... right?"

"Why not?" I said.

"I'll bring him down to the dock in my van," he said. "He's all wrapped up."

"That's good," I said. "Maybe he went swimming -- we'll go look for him."

"Sure," he said. "We'll check the Gulf Stream first -- see you in twenty minutes."

I hung up and watched the girl grind on the Deering. She took a long hit and then passed it over to me.

"Where's Steve?" I said finally after the fire had cooled in my head.

"Cuba," she said. "They both went ..." She lay down beside me on the bed and I put my arm around her. "We're going for a ride out to the blue water," I told her. "You and me and Frank -- somebody died and we have to bury it."

I felt her shudder against me. We lay there in silence for a while and then she whispered, “Who died?”

“Never mind,” I said. “We're into the chute on this one.”

“We?” she said.

I smiled. “That's right,” I said -- “We.”

She stood up and walked over to look at the boat. “Jesus!” she muttered. “I knew that son of a bitch would kill somebody.”

“He didn't,” I said. “The dopers did it.”

She wandered around the room for a while and I could hear her mind working. The phone rang again and I quickly picked it up.

“You ready?” Frank asked.

“Never mind,” I said. “Just put the stuff in my boat, then go back to the bar and get real drunk.”

“What? Are you crazy? You'll never find that channel alone!”

“Don’t worry," I said, "I won’t be alone.”

“What?” he shouted. “I told you -- nobody else knows!”

“Right,” I said. “That's why we'll do it ourselves.”

“Who?” he screamed.

“Calm down, Jocko,” I said. “We're all friends here -- you do your business and I'll do mine.”

“You bastard,” he hissed. “You're worse than Skinner.”

“Maybe,” I said. “What time is the game tonight?”

There was a long silence and then I heard him say, very faintly -- “It's delayed -- eleven o'clock.”

“Okay,” I said. “We'll be there.”

“We?”

“Yeah,” I said, “and if you see that welshing bastard Evans, tell him to bring money!”

"What?”

“He owes me,” I said.

"God damn!“ he said after a long pause. "You bastards are all Cubans, aren't you?"

-- KEY WEST, 1980

_______________

* An obscure 1917 federal statute, unused for fifty years.
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