It's a lazy Sunday morning in South Florida. While most people
are sipping hot coffee or heading off to church, Bobby Rutherford
(BSE '85), is supervising a drug bust that nets 3,000 pounds
of cocaine. Before returning home to his wife and young daughters,
he also begins relocation proceedings for one of his employees.
top, the customs enforcement officer Rutherford displays
1,000 pounds of cocaine seized from a freighter in
Miami. At bottom, Rutherford briefs Florida Gov. Jeb
Bush during a tour of the Miami River.
Photos courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs
"I'm having to move one of my agents today because one of
his sources was murdered, execution style, night before last,"
explains Rutherford. "So I've been kind of busy."
Rutherford, a group supervisor in U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (formerly U.S. Customs Service), has earned national
kudos for his efforts to rid the Miami River of narcotics
smugglers. In the mid-1990s, drug smugglers turned that river
into a superhighway for transporting narcotics into South
Florida. Freighters and barges from Haiti would arrive, ostensibly
empty, and worthless cargo would be loaded onto the vessels.
Those ships would then transport the rubbish to Haiti, dump
it, and return to Miami with supposedly empty cargo holds.
In reality, the vessels were importing cleverly concealed
stashes of cocaine and other drugs to the United States.
For Rutherford and his team of 20 agents, the situation was
overwhelming. "We didn't have enough people to address the
problem," he says. So Rutherford formulated a simple, yet
ingenious, plan to nab the smugglers and their vessels.
on the river
The success of Rutherford's plan hinged on the cooperation
of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. In 1998
he began "selling" his idea to colleagues in eight
other agencies. The result was a task force called Operation
Riversweep. Before that time, Customs agents might have suspected
boats of transporting drugs, but they did not have the manpower
to stop and search every vessel. The new inter-agency cooperation
provided Rutherford and his staff with the assistance they
needed. "We would find violations that weren't Customs
violations like Coast Guard safety violations or EPA
(Environmental Protection Agency) pollution violations,"
Rutherford explains. "We could use those violations to
put that boat out of service so that they wouldn't be bringing
in drugs anymore."
Rutherford admits that the cooperation created a bureaucratic
nightmare at first. "Every agency has different policies
and procedures for the way they do things," he says.
"So we brought them in and said, 'Hey, we need your
help. We'd like to utilize your statutes.' We basically made
them Customs officers and they operated under our authority,
with their extra authority. The outside officers were always
with one of our agents. We supervised them, and they served
as a force-multiplier for us."
Between 1999 and 2001, the nine-agency task force enjoyed
unprecedented success, arresting 120 people, seizing 21 freighters
and more than 13,000 pounds of cocaine.
As smugglers encountered increasing levels of opposition,
they began altering their methods of importing contraband.
Again, Rutherford fought back, expanding his brainchild into
a new and bigger initiative, Operation Riverwalk. Comprising
more than 30 different agencies and 300 officers, this program
lasted for two years, ending in early 2003. Operation Riverwalk
virtually shut down the Miami River as one of the major entry
points for narcotics coming into the United States. "We ended
up seizing about 15,000 pounds of cocaine, about 35 pounds
of heroin and about 15,000 ecstasy tablets," says Rutherford.
"And we arrested over 200 people."
top, Rutherford removes a kilo of cocaine from a hidden
compartment in a boat seized shortly after it arrived
from the Bahamas. At bottom, Customs agents search a vessel
after a four-hour boat chase that resulted in a dramatic
crash and seizure of 1,000 pounds of cocaine.
with the fishes
Riverwalk's success spawned a new conundrum: what to do with
the empty freighters forfeited to the government. In the past
the government would spend about $100,000 per vessel on upkeep
and dock fees until the boats could be sold at auction. Ironically,
the smugglers were buying many of the auctioned vessels. "We
were selling some of these boats right back to the same dopers,"
says Rutherford, ruefully. "And so we started sinking them."
Rutherford helped create a program to clean the freighters
and sink them forming artificial offshore reefs that
were a haven for fish and a boon for the tourism industry.
In May 2002, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
and 100 schoolchildren dedicated the "Governor's Riverwalk
Reef" at Peanut Island in Riviera Beach, Fla.
"We have taken something that was for evil and turned it
into something that is useful and beautiful," Gov. Bush proclaimed.
"Now those vessels of poison, whose only purpose was to bring
cocaine from Haiti ... are part of something beautiful, wholesome
and wonderful. That's a nice full circle, isn't it?"
The man who spearheaded these ambitious projects never intended
to pursue a career in U.S. Customs. Born in Scotland and raised
in Memphis, Rutherford decided to attend then-Memphis State
University, where his father, Robert, worked as director of
security. The younger Rutherford soon found his niche in the
University's Park Ranger Training Program. Led by Dr. Bill
Dwyer, the program was a federally certified National Park
Service law-enforcement training academy.
After two summers working at Chattahoochie River National
Recreation Area in Georgia, Rutherford graduated and accepted
a position as a police officer in Panama City Beach, Fla.,
where he had previously held summer jobs as a lifeguard. In
1987 he was offered a position with the U.S. Customs Service.
Subsequently, Rutherford attended another university, where
he earned a master's degree in international relations.
Rutherford credits much of his success in law enforcement
to his U of M training. "I had to complete the police
academy in the state of Florida," Rutherford says, "and
then I had to go through the Customs academy at the Federal
Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. The training I
got from Memphis State was actually better than all of those.
I graduated No. 1 in the state academy and in the Customs
academy because of the training I had at Memphis State in
Dr. Dwyer's class."
Many other organizations have also rated Rutherford No. 1
for his contributions to the field of law enforcement. About
five years ago, he received a national award from the International
Auto Theft Investigators Association for an auto smuggling
case he worked on in Jamaica, where 150 stolen cars were recovered.
In October of 2002 he received the prestigious Service to
America Justice Medal, an award given by the Partnership for
Public Service. And in October of 2003, Rutherford accepted
the International Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association
award for his most recent initiative, Operation Seastop.
Begun in March of 2003, Operation Seastop is an extension
of Operations Riversweep and Riverwalk. Smugglers are continually
adjusting their tactics to avoid the scrutiny foisted upon
them by Immigration and Customs officials. As a result of
Operation Riverwalk, drug importers began port shopping. "They
look for the port of least resistance one that's not
equipped to pay as much attention to them as we are in Miami,"
Rutherford explains. So freighters from Haiti began showing
up in New York, Houston, New Orleans and Tampa, Fla. "We
had expected that," says Rutherford. Because of Operation
Riverwalk, officials in those cities also began targeting
the freighters. The smugglers were foiled again ... but not
Now they have begun stopping off in the Bahamas, where they
unload their cargo and send it to the mainland in small boats.
"They're using what we call the Miami Vice-type boats,
or 'go-fast' boats," says Rutherford. "These boats run between
70 and 90 miles per hour in the middle of the night to bring
with several bales of cocaine that had been airdropped
by a Colombian aircraft onto an uninhabited Bahamian
island. The pick-up crew was arrested before they
found the bales of cocaine.
So Rutherford's initiative has assumed a third reincarnation
as Operation Seastop. This expanded program addresses
the threats poised by the "go-fast" boats and the few remaining
drug-trafficking organizations operating on the Miami River.
"It's a vicious cycle," Rutherford says. "Stop them in one
place, they pop up in another; move assets to address it,
and they go back to the old way."
Nabbing smugglers whizzing by at 90 miles per hour is a far
cry from hailing a cumbersome freighter. Sometimes, the workday
can literally fly by. "When you catch smugglers coming across,
they usually don't stop," Rutherford says. "It turns into
a boat chase. Because if you chase them all the way across
and they reach Bahamian waters, they're home free. We don't
want that to happen!"
After 16 years with U.S. Customs, Rutherford still finds
his job exhilarating and fulfilling. He downplays the danger,
but obviously relishes the excitement.
"Sometimes it's dangerous; sometimes it isn't,"
he says. "What we do is usually based on intelligence,
so we go out there and make sure we outnumber the bad guys.
But every now and then when you're out there in the middle,
you find another boat and you get into a chase and it's just
you against them.
"Helicopters, boats, planes you name it, we in
Customs get to do it all," he continues, and without
hesitation adds, "It's a good time, and I'm still having