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The War on Drugs




Justice deposes the ruling king of cocaine wars

June 4, 1985


Say farewell to one of Dade County's most treacherous outlaws. His name is Conrado Valencia Zalgado, but he is better known as El Loco.

He was the original cocaine cowboy—a drug runner, machine gunner, bond jumper, high roller, master of disguise. In his prime, he made Pacino's Scarface look like Tommy Tune, but now Conrado's day is passed, his luck evaporated.

On May 22, a Dade County judge ordered El Loco to prison for the next century or so, thus closing a wild saga in our cavalcade of crime. For once, the good guys actually won.

Valencia was the bullet-headed, bare-chested maniac who hung from a speeding Audi and fired a submachine gun at rival coke peddlers on the Florida Turnpike Extension six years ago. When the cops caught up with the car, they found a dead Colombian named Jaime in the trunk.

Conrado, of course, professed total surprise.

Three months later, the late Jaime's friends retaliated, blasting two of El Loco's soldiers in the infamous Dadeland Massacre.

South Florida's image never fully recovered from that summer of 1979, and the torrent of national publicity that followed. Those of us who covered the cocaine wars imagined Dodge City reborn—each day seemed to bring a new atrocity, a new corpse (35 drug killings in one six-month stretch).

Along with their precious powder, the Colombians imported an astounding brand of violence. The crimes were almost impossible to solve—suspects and victims alike possessed an impenetrable array of fake names and phony passports. Among these alien gangsters, El Loco was a king.

After the turnpike shootout, he was charged with attempted murder and tossed in jail, but not for long. Conrado came up with the proverbial cash in a briefcase—$105,000 to be exact—posted bond and immediately disappeared.

He moved his family and his cocaine network to Los Angeles, where he became a laid-back Valley guy. He began calling himself Max, and cruised the Topanga Hills in a red 1948 DeSoto convertible (vanity tags, of course). He was having a swell time until some smart cops went through his garbage and found a phone bill with lots of calls to Miami.

From then on, El Loco's days were numbered. One summer night in 1982, Conrado Valencia opened the door to a girlfriend's apartment and wound up sucking on a gun barrel. A Los Angeles policeman was on the other end.

A few days later Metro-Dade detective Al Lopez and I went to California to see the legendary Loco. He was clanging around the Los Angeles County Jail in body manacles, and he was in a crummy mood. The cops out there had thrown the book at him; the cops back in Dade County were waiting their turn. El Loco didn't want to talk. Not to me, not to Lopez, not to anybody.

A California judge gave Conrado 30 years in prison, and last month he returned to Miami to face, at long last, the charges from the Turnpike shootout. He was convicted swiftly and on May 22, acting Circuit Judge Norman Gerstein sentenced "Jose Ramon Ruiz" (one of Conrado's many aliases) to 125 years.

Even if Loco escapes, which is always a possibility, he will find a different world awaiting him. The bloodiest era of the cocaine cowboys seems to be over, and flamboyant enforcers are less in demand. The word's gotten back to South America: Low profile means more profit.

True, cocaine is more plentiful now than in the summer of 1979, but at least the malls and highways are a little safer. These days most drug killers are polite enough to do their work in private.

Maybe that's the best we can hope for.

Adios, Conrado. Don't bother to write.

Dade's latest drug fight all wet—pass it around

November 5, 1985


Everybody sing: Ninety-nine bottles of—on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of—. Take one down, pass it around ...

Congratulations, Dade County. No longer are we merely the Murder Capital of America; now we're the Specimen Capital, too.

First it was a couple hundred Miami police, proudly lining up to give samples to prove they're drug free. Not to be outdone, the Hialeah police followed suit. Next came the idea to test firefighters and even garbage collectors.

If they keep going at this rate, they're going to need a tanker truck to haul all this stuff away.

Lester Freeman of the Miami Citizens Against Crime has come up with the nuttiest scheme of all: All 52 MCAC members—staid bankers, lawyers, civic leaders, media honchos—are to have their exalted urine screened for drugs this week.

Curiously, the results will be reported anonymously, no names attached.

So much for this week's bizarre contribution to the national news: Miami's most prominent citizens cheerfully urinating into a cup to prove they're not whacked out on dope.

The point of this distasteful little charade? "A leadership demonstration," they say.

This isn't leadership, it's vaudeville. Is there another place in the civilized world where the Catholic archbishop has to urinate into a cup to prove he's clean?

As a member of MCAC, that's what the Rev. Edward McCarthy is going to do this week. Talk about trying the Lord's patience.

Who'd have expected such embarrassing publicity from the same folks so obsessed with purifying South Florida's image? Welcome to Miami. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses—and how about some urine, while you're at it.

True, this kind of drug testing has become quite the national rage. The military uses it, and major league baseball wants to make it mandatory.

But a preplanned mass urinalysis is nothing but a gross publicity stunt. It doesn't prove you're honest. It doesn't prove you're competent. It doesn't even prove you're drug-free.

All it proves is that you know how to hit a cup.

Experts have contended that this kind of assembly-line testing can be unreliable, error-prone and unfair.

"The issue has become preposterous," says Dr. John P. Morgan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "It's like hunting Communists."

Dr. Morgan, who has written and testified extensively on mass urinalysis, says the most common type of test is flawed by "stunningly high false-positive results." The odds of a mistake are frequently compounded, he says, by incompetent lab work.

"God forbid you take the sample and mix it up with somebody else's. Or suppose you mismark one of the cups," adds Erich Gressmann, a toxicologist at the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office.

No wonder the MCAC doesn't want its members' names on these jars. There'd be hell to pay if Frank Borman's specimen somehow got mixed up with that of, say, rock musician David Crosby.

Even if the urine test is done correctly, it might show that you haven't snorted cocaine during the last 48 hours, or smoked a joint in a couple weeks, or dropped diazepam since yesterday morning. And that's all it shows.

And nobody in their right minds (Chuck Muncie being the possible exception) is going to voluntarily give a urine sample while he's flying high.

Mass urine testing is no way to get rid of crooked cops, and it's certainly no way for South Florida's civic pillars to demonstrate "leadership."

If they're so darn proud, maybe they ought to take the test in public. They could rent the Miami Beach Convention Hall, charge admission, maybe auction off a few celebrity specimens.

Call it Bladder-Mania.

Everybody sing ...

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