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El Paso’s Smuggling Empire: Part Two

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In the 1970s, El Paso was America's marijuana capital because a group of local smugglers found the perfect connection in Mexico.

But problems came up and the smugglers needed to find a new connection.

They found one that led to what was likely the biggest smuggling operation up to that time, getting nearly 60,000 pounds of marijuana from Colombia to a place called Folly Cove, Massachusetts.

Author Kermit Schweidel, who friends know as Kim, was a member of the smuggling crew who’s finally sharing the story in a new book, “Folly Cove: A Smuggler’s Tale of the Pot Rebellion.” “It was a story I didn't really share,” Schweidel said, “that I didn't really want to share, partly because it's a story I don't think anyone would have believed."

Schweidel now runs an advertising agency in Dallas.

But when he was young, Kim called El Paso home, and he found a job in one of the local trades, smuggling. "I had lost my job and I was talking to Jack and he told me, 'something big is coming,'” Schweidel said, “and that he needed all the help he could get and that was all I needed to know. I said, 'Ok, I'm in. I'll do it.'"

Jack Stricklin, along with Mike Halliday, ran what was likely America's largest marijuana smuggling operation during the 1970s from El Paso. “We got the best pot because we were the biggest,” Halliday said, “and naturally, we'd get the first pick, y'know."

Mike ended up serving time in the nearby La Tuna federal prison on drug charges.

At the same time, the quality of the marijuana they were getting from Mexico was going down, while the “mordida” or bribe money they had to pay to get the pot across the border was going up. So Jack found a new partner to join the crew, Jimmy Chagra, the little brother of Jack's lawyer, Lee Chagra.

Jack also had a new business plan: find a new pot connection in Colombia.

Jimmy had three qualifcations for the job. He was tenacious, fearless and he knew the language. "The story is that Jimmy found a shoeshine boy who was connected to one of the heads of the cartels,” Schweidel said, “and he put them together and Jimmy convinced the guy that he was King Kong of the drug business and they put a load together."

Jimmy told Jack that if they came up with nearly $400,000, the Colombians would give them a massive load of marijuana, though, no one was quite sure how massive.

So in the Spring of 1975, Jack went to work. Schweidel said about Jack, “When he needed money, he went to all his friends in El Paso. They were doctors, they were lawyers, they were bankers and barbers and waiters and every kind of person imaginable." Schweidel considers Stricklin the Godfather of crowdfunding, promising each investor a three-to-one return on their investment if the smuggling operation succeeded.

Ralph Armendariz was also part of the smuggling crew. “Just the idea, as we were talking about it and Jack was talking,” Armendariz said, “I was thinking, 'ocean, pot, Colombia, wow! y'know, this is a hell of a challenge.'"

Ralph went from being an altar boy, to a marine reservist, to a smuggler who was suddenly in charge of a boatload of marijuana.

In the book, Schweidel wrote that Armendariz “didn’t know how to navigate a boat in the bathtub.” Ralph agreed. "Nope! I had no seamanship whatsoever, had no idea about boats. I mean I was raised in El Paso. Where you gonna go? Ascarate Park?"

But Stricklin trusted Armendariz to make sure the marijuana made it from Colombia to Folly Cove, Massachusetts.

Ralph's vessel was a 90-foot shrimping trawler with a Colombian captain and crew.

Keep in mind this was 1975. There was no GPS or satellite phones to call ashore. “You have to use the sun y'know, for a sextant,” Armendariz said, “and then you just plot it on charts with your pins."

Two days out at sea, they experienced their first disaster. A leaking tank spilled almost all their drinking water. The captain wanted to dump the pot and head back to Colombia. Ralph didn't. A crew member who'd befriended him, gave Ralph a pistol, and for the first time in his smuggling career, he was prepared to use a gun. Armendariz said he told the captain, “I am not going back to Santa Marta (Colombia). I am not throwing pot in the ocean. I said, 'what am I gonna do if I go back to Santa Marta?'"

Schweidel said the boat crew suffered a number of mishaps at sea. "One night there was a fire. There were storms. It was the height of hurricane season."

Armendariz believes they were also likely caught in a hurricane. “All I know, it was picking up our boat and throwing it just like a piece of paper." Armendariz said the only times he truly feared for his life were when the storms hit.

But all the rain provided enough fresh water for the crew to survive 37 days at sea.

Meanwhile, because the boat couldn't communicate with anyone, for fear of getting caught, dozens of smugglers could only sit and wait at Folly Cove.

Billy Russell was in charge of the money and logistics for the Folly Cove operation. "We were burning through so much money every day,” Russell said, “because we had so many people up there in these places away from the landing zone."

The main stash house was a glass house at the top of a cliff overlooking Folly Cove. Other stash houses dotted the surrounding Gloucester area.

After 10 days of waiting for Ralph's boat to arrive, and still no sign of it, Jack Stricklin gave the crew the night off to party in town, while Billy stayed behind. “I'm sitting there and the next thing I know,” Billy said, “is that I've got a twin-diesel boat, 38, 40 feet, down on the dock with about 8,000 pounds on it and not a single person at the glass house. (laughs)"

Calls went out and crew members sped back to the glass house in the middle of the night.

Then for three straight nights in July of '75, they unloaded thousands of pound of pot from Ralph's trawler, first to smaller boats, then to a make-shift dock and onto a pulley system that hauled the bales up a 70-foot cliff to the glass house.

Billy remembers the experience as exhausting. “Three nights in which I lost 25 pounds and I wasn't overweight,” Billy said, “pulling on that rope, moving the bales inside, doing my book work on the bales and getting it out of there!"

With Billy's logistical genius, they managed to move out all the marijuana within the three days.

The final count was 58,000 pounds of marijuana with a payoff of nearly $15 million. That’s the equivalent of about $70 million in today's dollars.

Jack's investors back in El Paso, large and small, got their three-to-one payback. "You couldn't fail to notice the new cars and the expensive dinner tabs,” Schweidel said, “and it really was kind of a visible thing and the D.E.A. was scratching their head over it."

It was the perfect crime... almost. But two months before the statute of limitations was up in 1980, Kim Schweidel and the others got busted. They didn't do any hard time for the Folly Cove smuggling job. A federal judge in Boston gave them three years' probation.

But prosecutors would make other cases with far harsher consequences.

In all, Jack Stricklin spent 24 years of his life in prison, while Jimmy Chagra spent almost as long behind bars.They've both since died.

Among the survivors, Mike Halliday served more than 11 years in prison, as did Billy Russell.

Ralph Armendariz spent five years in federal prison.

Kim Schweidel, who finally told the story of Folly Cove, was the lucky one. Besides probation, he spent two days in jail. But he got out of the smuggling business years before the others. “Among all the guys,” Schweidel said, “the one similar thing is that there is not a single regret. We had a hell of a good time."

“Folly Cove: A Smuggler’s Tale of the Pot Rebellion” was published by an El Paso-based company, Cinco Puntos Press, located at 701 Texas Ave. You can buy copies of the book there, or at Barnes & Noble bookstores in El Paso.

In addition, you can purchase the book online at barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com

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