A Miami Herald editor opening the mail has a surprise encounter with a cache of cocaine.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
On a Tuesday morning in January, a Miami Herald business editor was flipping through press releases and opening mail in search of material for a weekly Latin American calendar the Herald prints.
A clerk brought over two heavy boxes labeled "libros" with a postmark of Bogota, Colombia. Editor Nancy Dahlberg cut the first one open and started pulling out Spanish books.
"It was early," says Dahlberg, the Herald's Sunday business editor. "I saw it was from Bogota. But I hadn't had my coffee yet. I thought it was for book reviews."
She got halfway through one box and opened the second. Underneath some books were paperback-sized bricks of white powder, which she reached in to pick up.
Within seconds, Dahlberg was surrounded by four federal drug agents flashing badges. Forget the books. Inside the two boxes were 53 pounds of cocaine and about a half pound of heroin. Value: close to $1 million.
"The agents had been watching me the whole time, lurking in the hallways," says Dahlberg, who is not considered a suspect. "They'd arranged it all with security. Our attorney knew all about it."
And, not surprisingly, so did the U.S. Customs office. Agents had followed the boxes from a foreign-mail screening center. After seeing their destination, agents shadowed a Miami Herald mailroom employee who picked up the boxes at the post office and delivered them to the newspaper. "The agents wanted to see who would claim them," says Dahlberg.
"The agents think it could be an inside job but maybe not," says Dahlberg. "It may be that somebody put the name of the Herald Latin Calendar because it looked legit, but it should have been picked off long before it got to the Herald."
The story might have ended there. But no one ever said drug dealers are Mensa material. The next day, the dealer called the Herald mailroom four times within a half hour on a cell phone, looking for his package. "I'm the one who compiles the Latin calendar [which lists conferences and events in Latin America]," he told a clerk. "You have a package for me."
The savvy clerk – who'd read the Herald's metro section story about the package – put him on hold. The Spanish-speaking mystery man, claiming his cell phone was running out of juice, said he'd call back. He did. Later, a clerk patched the suspected dealer through to the business section, where a U.S. Customs agent pretended to be a business editor and told the dealer to pick up his packages. Alas, a professional courier arrived instead.
After questioning, it was clear he was an unwitting hired hand.
As of press time, the owner of nearly $1 million in drugs was out of luck but still had eluded authorities, according to Customs spokeswoman Norma Morfa .
Initially Dahlberg, who had not been identified in the Herald's two stories as a protective measure, didn't want AJR ###