A bill signed into law on May 31 by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush requires seaports to beef up security measures at the state’s 14 seaports.
An effort to clamp down on drug trafficking, the law requires ports to put up fences, gates and lights around docks and cargo storage areas. It also requires thousands of longshoremen, truck drivers and other laborers at Florida ports to undergo criminal background checks. Those convicted in the past five years of certain felonies, including drug and theft charges, will be prohibited from restricted areas such as cargo warehouses, fuel terminals and cruise ship docks.
Truck drivers make some 11,000 trips in and out of Tampa's port daily, port officials say.
"We have a significant problem at our ports - too much cocaine coming in and too much money going out," state Sen. Locke Burt, told the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel
. "There is no agency of state government in charge of supervising the ports and no minimum standards now. We don't want crooks using our ports." The Republican lawmaker sponsored the Senate bill (S978).
The new law provides $7 million to fund security improvements this year - not nearly enough, officials say. The House version of the bill (H1663) called for implementation by April 2002. That bill died on the calendar. The original Senate bill set a 2004 deadline for ports to meet tougher security regulations and included mandatory fines for failing to meet the deadline. Lobbyists for the ports were able to get deadlines and fines removed.
A study has shown that Tampa and Miami have the most security problems of the state's four major ports, which also include Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville.
Drug enforcement officers estimate 40 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States comes through Florida ports despite recent efforts to improve security at both Port of Miami and Port Everglades. An estimated 150 and 200 metric tons of cocaine enter the country through Florida each year, says the state's drug czar, James R. McDonough. In 1998, 112 of the 168 cocaine seizures by U.S. Customs in commercial cargo were at Florida ports, according to a St. Petersburg Times
According to the Sun-Sentinel
, federal agents uncovered in March an operation to smuggle more than 9,000 pounds of cocaine into the Port of Miami. Last fall, two former Teamster leaders were charged with importing nearly 8,000 pounds of cocaine and 85,000 pounds of marijuana into Port Everglades, the paper reports.
"Most of the smuggling is done through inside jobs," McDonough says. "Security checks are mixed in places -- usually sparse and uneven. So with lax security and close proximity to the drugs, it was fairly easy to get drugs into the state of Florida."
Officials hope the new law makes inside and outside jobs more difficult.