By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Raonel Valdez strolls through the quiet parking lot behind a salmon-colored Coral Gables apartment building. As dawn pales a warm autumn morning, the small-framed 33-year-old Cuban refugee with short, gelled black hair patiently scans a third-floor window, waiting for signs of life. Known to his cohorts as "Matojo" for his boyish resemblance to a Communist-era cartoon character, Valdez glances down at the GPS monitoring device strapped to his ankle. He won't let the Miami-Dade Corrections Department get in the way of his biggest score yet.
Upstairs, George Villegas shuffles from the bathroom to the living room, a drab space enlivened by posters of Broadway musicals taped to the eggshell walls. The 51-year-old looks at his watch. It's 7:43 a.m. October 12, 2012.
An olive-skinned man with a chubby face, eyeglasses, and salt-and-pepper hair, Villegas grabs two wheeled suitcases, one red and one blue, packed with hundreds of gold nuggets sealed in plastic bags, each weighing more than 50 pounds. Villegas huffs as he maneuvers the luggage into a cramped elevator. As the courier for his cousin's Bolivia-based export company, Quri Wasi Inc., he is to deliver the rolling treasure chests — worth more than a million bucks each — to a refinery in Opa-locka.
The elevator touches down on the first floor. When the doors slide open, Valdez calmly waves the gun at Villegas. "We want the gold," he spits in Spanish. "We're only here for the gold."
Villegas tries to bat away the firearm, and Valdez squeezes the trigger. Nothing happens. The gun is jammed. Before the stunned delivery man can react, Valdez knocks him down, the cousins snatch the suitcases, and they sprint down an alley.
"By the time I got up to see which way he went, he was gone," Villegas says of Valdez. "He had been scoping me out for a long time. It left me rattled. Guys like him shouldn't be allowed in this country."
Valdez's gold heist wasn't just an extraordinarily bold theft. The untold story of his exploits — from a run of escalating crimes in Miami-Dade County to a jaw-dropping mission to kidnap a powerful drug leader in Mexico for a $5 million reward — is also an indictment of the court system's inability to deal with organized Cuban crime.
There's no smoking gun that proves Valdez was working for Cuban gangs, but court documents and interviews with private investigators, former federal drug agents, and Mexican journalists all suggest he's a prime example of how loosely connected cubano rings have moved into South Florida's most lucrative underworld rackets.
Though the Cocaine Cowboy era fueled by marielitos is over, crews tied to Cuba dominate everything from marijuana grow houses to migrant smuggling to Medicaid fraud to money laundering. Law enforcement agencies don't track or identify organized Cuban crews like they do the Mafia and Mexican cartels, but a review of recent busts shows Valdez is far from alone:
• A Cuban group busted in 2011 was transporting more than 100 aliens from the island to South Florida via the Bahamas and charging $10,000 per head. Nine Cuban men have been convicted and sentenced for their roles in the scheme.
• In June 2012, the FBI and Miami-Dade Police dismantled a ring of 13 Cuban marijuana growers — including five members of the Santiesteban family — who were moving huge quantities of bud from Miami up the East Coast while murdering rivals and banking millions. A 2009 Orlando Sentinel investigation found that 85 to 90 percent of all suspects busted in Florida grow-house crimes are recent Cuban arrivals.
• This past May, a federal grand jury indicted more than 30 mostly Cuban conspirators for operating a massive racket staging automobile accidents to cash false insurance claims.
• Last month, federal prosecutors charged four Cuban-Americans from Miami and Miami Beach with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and money laundering after obtaining $1.5 million in bank loans for fake boat purchases and then pocketing the cash.
Valdez's story also illuminates the unique challenges to law enforcement posed by Cuban criminal networks, whose foot soldiers — thanks to their special asylum status — can't be easily deported even as their arrests pile up.
"They've found paradise under the sun," Jim Shedd, a former federal agent hired by Quri Wasi, says of organized Cuban rings. "They commit crimes with impunity."
The Sunshine State's underworld has always had direct ties to Havana's colorful criminal network. A look back at Florida's most notorious Cuban-American mobsters doubles as a recap of the South Florida gangs' evolution, a history that finds its modern chapter in Valdez's own guns-gold-and-gangsters tale.
Take, for example, Mario Escandar, who managed a Havana slot machine house called Rue Las Vegas at the height of the American Mob's takeover of the city in the 1950s. That's how he connected with American gangsters Meyer Lansky and Santos Trafficante, says Kirk Nielsen, a former Miami New Times staff writer now working on a book about Cuban organized crime.
"He traveled back and forth between Miami and Havana throughout the '50s as a Mob emissary," Nielsen says. "There were many examples of Cubans getting in with the Italian and Jewish mafia dons running things back then. After the revolution, some of those relationships continued when Cubans moved to New Jersey and Miami."