by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
Has it really been 34 years since the US Border Patrol set up a roadblock on US 1, right in front of the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, effectively blocking the only road out of the Keys? Although that is not a national border and never has been, Border Patrol agents started stopping every vehicle coming out of the Keys on April 18, 1982, and requiring every occupant of every vehicle to show proof of citizenship– presumably looking for Cubans who had been able to get from Cuba to the Keys on all kinds of boats and rafts and who were now, presumably, trying to get to the mainland. Agents also searched the vehicles, presumably looking for drugs. The delays often lasted several hours, causing traffic backups for as much as 20 miles. It was not only an inconvenience to residents, but it was also discouraging tourists from visiting the Keys. Tourist-related businesses were losing many thousands of dollars daily.
So, was the Border Patrol over-reacting? To answer that question, you need to look at what was happening in the Keys at that time. It is not an overstatement to suggest that illegal immigration and drug trafficking were both approaching “out of control” status in the Keys. A year earlier, Miami Herald Reporters Carl Hiaasen, Richard Morin and Susan Sachs were Pulitizer Prize finalists for their series “Key West: Smugglers’ Island.” They wrote: “In two years, a conspicuous, unbridled smuggling industry has boosted Key West’s seesaw economy, made millionaires out of failed fishermen and demoralized underpaid law officers. The cops can’t stop it, the prosecutors don’t prosecute it, and the people of this historic island have accepted it with nonchalance.”
Just five years earlier, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Dade County Organized Crime Bureau had swept into Key West and arrested 19 Key Westers on drug charges. One detective noted that buying drugs in Key West was “as easy as walking into a restaurant and ordering a meal and cocaine was as common as key lime pie.” Fearing the possibility of leaks, the task force purposely kept the local sheriff, police chief and city attorney in the dark about the pending raid. And task force leaders knew that such a raid might be dangerous. Early on, one of the task force’s informants had been found dead in a bathtub, shot twice in the head and injected with a mixture of drain cleaner and battery acid. One of the high-profile Key Westers arrested was then-Fire Chief “Bum” Farto. He was subsequently convicted of drug dealing, but he was never sentenced. He just disappeared. Some said that he was living in Costa Rica with a young mistress. Others suggested that he had been “fed to the fishes.”
And just three years after the Border Patrol roadblock, the “Bubba Bust” of 1985 would net then-Deputy Police Chief Raymond “Tito” Casamayer Jr and two of his veteran detectives. Prosecutors said that Casamayer routinely had cocaine delivered to his office at City Hall in Burger King bags and Chicken Unlimited boxes. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In the meantime, the FBI had named the Key West Police Department “a criminal enterprise.” Even the official history of the KWPD notes that “the 1980s were the darkest years in the history of the department.”
And it should be noted that, when the Border Patrol blocked US 1, the priorities of the leaders in Key West and the Keys were not illegal immigration and drug trafficking. The major priority was the negative impact on tourism. That was simply the reality of the situation. What happened next was that then-Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow contacted then-Governor Bob Graham. But nothing happened. Wardlow then contacted the Border Patrol directly. Again. nothing happened– except that a Border Patrol captain reportedly told Wardlow to kiss off. Finally, the mayor and other business and tourism leaders asked the federal district court in Miami to issue an injunction to force the Border Patrol to remove the roadblock. That didn’t work either. But at some point during this process, somebody suggested the idea of a mock secession from the Union to attract national attention to the plight of the Florida Keys– “If they’re going to treat us like a foreign nation, let’s act like one.”
So Wardlow and his co-revolutionists quickly organized a tongue-in-cheek government– the Conch Republic. Local officials assumed newly-created positions such as minister of underwater affairs and minister of nutrition. Wardlow was prime minister. Also, a new flag was quickly designed and raised for the first time at an event to announce the secession. Wardlow declared “war” on the United States and government officials attending the event were pelted with stale Cuban bread. But wisely, within minutes of declaring war, Wardlow announced that the new Conch Republic was surrendering and requested $1 billion in foreign aid. The Conch Republic never received any foreign aid– but the spectacle attracted enough attention to convince the feds to remove the roadblock.
Since that time, Key Westers– in the spirit of never missing any opportunity to create a new annual festival– have observed the Conch Republic Independence Celebration every year. This year, the 10-day celebration starts on April 22. We seceded where others failed!
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