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magazine home > archives > winter 2004 > features

He has won the prestigious Service to America Justice Medal for service to his country. But for this alumnus, stopping drug smugglers is exhilarating and — yes — fun.

Making Waves
by Elizabeth Jane Walker

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.

Rutherford with seized cocaine

Rutherford with Gov. Jeb Bush

At 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 Enforcement

"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.

Rolling 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."

Rutherford removes cocaine from seized boat

Customs agents search vessel
At 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.


Sleeping 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?"

Diving in

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.

A ripple effect

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 for long.

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 shipments across."

Rutherford with seized cocaine

Rutherford 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 fun."

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