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."
After Castro took Cuba, Escandar, like many other ex-habanero hoods, ended up in Little Havana, where he became a drug kingpin running pot, heroin, and coke into the States. Later, he partnered with another Cuban trafficker, who trained CIA-recruited troops for the Bay of Pigs invasion. And when Escandar was among 150 mostly Cuban dealers finally busted in the '70s, he avoided jail time by turning police informant.
"The cops ended up partying a lot with Escandar," Nielsen says. "He lured them with flowing booze, Rolex watches, and other jewelry. Some of the detectives ended up doing coke and selling it."
Escandar's end came in 1980 when he was busted by the FBI for distributing cocaine. He flipped again, this time turning on his police pals. Nine officers were indicted based on his testimony. Escandar died at age 51 in prison. "In Escandar's case, you can see that the line between working for law enforcement and engaging in criminal activity was porous," Nielsen says.
José Miguel Battle Sr. was even more notorious than Escandar. A former policeman in Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship who turned mobster, Battle monitored Havana's casinos when he was a cop. That's where he, like Escandar, befriended American mafiosi. Following his release from Cuban prison in the mid-'60s, he immigrated to New Jersey, where he built an empire on bolita, an illegal game of chance, before moving his gang, called La Corporación, to Miami in the early '80s.
The city was still reeling from the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when Castro dumped thousands of criminals onto his northern neighbor. Mariel was a boon to Battle, with scores of new soldiers for his empire.
"The expansion of the Cuban émigré population and the arrival of a small core of hardened criminals did galvanize Cuban organized crime in the U.S.," says New York University global affairs professor Mark Galeotti, who also authored the 2006 book Forward to the Past: Organized Crime and Cuba's History, Past, Present and Future. "They first consolidated their position in Miami, while others quickly made their way to New York and New Jersey."
The feds have struggled to catch up ever since. In 2004, prosecutors scored a major victory by indicting 25 members of La Corporación, including Battle and his heir, José Miguel Jr., on charges including racketeering, illegal gambling, and homicide. Prosecutors estimated Battle's gang had generated $1.4 billion in illegal gambling revenue and committed at least 13 murders during its five-decade run. Battle died in federal custody in 2007 while serving a 20-year sentence.
It was a victory for law and order. But Valdez's story shows how a new generation of crooks born after Castro's revolution have emerged to conquer Miami's underbelly yet again.
Valdez arrived in Miami the year after Battle's downfall, in March 2005, and obtained a social security card and driver's license between April and August of that year. He settled in a large rental complex across the Palmetto Expressway from Florida International University. A year later, he met Mairelys Carrillo, an exotic dancer at the Pink Pony, a strip club in Doral, and quickly found his way into illegal rackets.
He began working small-scale grow houses and nickel-and-dime drug trafficking. His first brush with the law came June 19, 2007, when he answered the door to a house at 5011 NW 179th Terrace in Miami Gardens to find Miami-Dade narcotics detectives and an agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration waiting. Inside the house, investigators found 21 marijuana plants and piles of weed drying for packaging. Instead of facing federal charges for marijuana cultivation, he was booked on state felony pot possession and, as a first-time offender, was put on probation for eight months and fined $458.
The bust didn't push him out of the drug game, though. Seven months later, on January 9, 2008, he was behind the wheel of a 2006 Chevrolet Equinox when a Hialeah cop pulled him over. Police popped the fuel tank's cap and found a white plastic grocery bag stuffed with 85 grams of crystal meth. He was booked on felony trafficking, but prosecutors later dropped the meth charges and a judge let him off with time served.
The crimes kept coming. On July 9, he was nabbed for armed robbery after walking out of a Home Depot with a pair of $18 garden shears and then attacking security guards who tried to stop him. He bonded out, only to be busted for DUI in Hialeah a month later, on August 23. Less than three months after that incident, on November 11, 2008, he was arrested for driving with a suspended license. His license was eventually suspended or revoked four times for DUI, driving with controlled substances, and committing multiple traffic offenses.
Despite a slew of charges within three years of landing in Florida, Valdez never ran afoul of immigration authorities. Although convicted felons can be deported to Cuba, the Castro government must agree to take them back — a rare occurrence that aids career crooks such as Valdez, experts say. "The system is broken," says David Bolton, a private investigator hired by Quri Wasi. "He slipped through the cracks."
Valdez did avoid police for the first ten months of 2009. But then he failed to appear at an October hearing on the Home Depot theft. His bond was revoked. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
But Valdez had slipped away again — this time across the Gulf of Mexico.
Salt water sprayed Valdez as a 36-foot speedboat's three 400-horsepower engines sliced through the swells along the Yucatán Peninsula's coastline. Valdez and two other Cubans stood guard over their prisoner.
"I'll give you $20 million if you let me go," the captive begged. The Cubans ignored him.
About 40 miles off the coast of Cuba, the captain turned off the motors. He radioed his contact, a Fort Lauderdale-based DEA agent named Vincent Williams. About 20 minutes later, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter met up with the Cubans, who handed over their hostage.
Valdez and his goon squad were feeling good. They expected a huge payday after pulling off an operation notable for its sheer audacity and its support from Uncle Sam. Instead — if Mexican newspapers, TV journalists, and a former DEA agent are to be believed — the scheme turned into a fiasco.
The brazen crime began when Valdez and a crew of Cuban human traffickers based in Cancún were recruited to pull off a daring mission, says ex-DEA agent Shedd. "These gangsters have loose affiliations with one another," he says. "Sometimes they work together. Sometimes they don't."
It is not clear precisely when Valdez arrived in Cancún, but several Mexican news outlets reported state police had arrested him, a smuggler named Adam Meza, and seven other Cubans on October 23, 2010, on human smuggling charges. Francisco Alor Quezada, the attorney general for the state of Quintana Roo, told reporters the Cubans were part of a ring transporting migrants on a speedboat that had been stolen from a Marathon dock three months earlier.
After cops arrested Meza, who is dark-skinned and sports a faux Mohawk, he led police to a hotel room where the migrants were stashed. The stolen 33-foot Hydra-Sports craft was docked outside. Later that afternoon, Valdez drove up to the hotel with a man dressed in a Mexican federal police uniform. They were both taken into custody. "They were all charged with human trafficking," Quezada told reporters. "Unfortunately, Meza and Valdez bribed a prison guard to get them out before they could stand trial."
Details of what came next are laid out in an extraordinary TV interview that aired August 3, 2011, on Univision. In it, two of Valdez's alleged accomplices relayed their wild tale for reporter Gerardo Reyes.
Looking to claim a $5 million reward, the Cubans hatched a plot to nab Heriberto Lezcano Lezcano, then the head honcho for Los Zetas, the brutal Mexican cartel started by corrupt former special forces soldiers. Meza and the alleged mastermind, who remained anonymous in Univision's interview, told Reyes they wanted to tell their story because the DEA stiffed them on the bounty.
The anonymous ringleader described how it took more than a year for his crew, including Valdez, to infiltrate the Zetas. They gained the cartel's trust by organizing five drug deals. During one of those deals, they met the man they claimed was Lezcano. They also provided emails they say came from Williams, the DEA agent, in which he discussed when to make their move as well as the $5 million reward.
The ringleader told Reyes it was a harrowing mission. "It wasn't easy at all to gain their trust," the man said of Los Zetas. "We had to be very careful and patient."
The men were hazy about exactly how they snatched Lezcano — a man whose torture methods earned him the nickname "the Executioner." But in early July 2011, they said, they manhandled him onto the boat and sped away to rendezvous with the DEA. As they motored across the Gulf with their captive, Williams radioed that a P-3 Orion surveillance craft was tracking their position. "I can't see the plane," the ringleader recounted. "Williams told me: 'Don't worry — they see you.' "
That's how the U.S. Coast Guard cutter found them, the anonymous leader told Reyes. When the Cubans boarded the cutter and turned over their hostage, Williams exclaimed, "It's not him. It's not Lezcano." The DEA refused to pay up.
But Meza told Reyes he was certain they got the right guy because within days of the kidnapping, the DEA and Mexican national police nabbed several high-ranking Zetas. "Lezcano must have told the DEA where to find them," Meza insisted.
The story, which received wide play in the Mexican media, is difficult to verify. At least one cartel expert doesn't believe the bold kidnapping happened as the men described it on television. "I don't find them credible," says J. Jesús Esquivel, a correspondent for Mexican magazine Proceso and author of the book La DEA en México.
He notes the DEA is more likely to use Mexicans, Colombians, or Central Americans as confidential informants than Cubans. "The Cuban criminal organizations are on the periphery as far as doing business with the cartels," Esquivel says. "They are not directly involved in cartel activities."
What's more, a year after the operation, on October 7, 2012, the Mexican government reported that Lezcano had been killed in a police shootout in the state of Coahuila.
But Shedd, citing his contacts in the DEA, says he believes Valdez and his crew definitely kidnapped someone high in the Zetas' leadership and then delivered him into U.S. custody. "It wasn't Lezcano," he says. "But it was someone important who is probably now in the witness protection program."
(Valdez's criminal defense attorney, Alexander Michaels, says he has no knowledge of his clients' activities in Mexico. Mia Roo, a spokeswoman for the Fort Lauderdale DEA office, says the agency will not discuss any of the allegations. Williams, who didn't return calls, can't comment on the Univision interview, Roo says.)
This much, at least, is clear: On July 4, 2011, days after the mission, Valdez returned to Miami International Airport, where U.S. Customs & Border Protection officers arrested him off his flight from Cancún on the warrant from his missed court date for the 2008 Home Depot theft.
Valdez sat in county jail until September and then pleaded guilty to felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor theft. He caught another break, though. Miami-Dade Criminal Court Judge Victoria Brennan gave him credit for the 74 days he had already spent in jail.
Free once again to wreak havoc, Valdez didn't disappoint. On April 30, 2012, he showed up at the West Miami home he once shared with Mairelys Carrillo, the mother of his 2-year-old daughter. Carrillo, who had recently broken up with Valdez, barred the door as he threatened to break the glass. Two days later, he returned and attacked her, grabbing her neck with one hand and brandishing a knife with the other, according to a West Miami Police report. (Carrillo declined to be interviewed for this story). He took Carrillo's purse containing her iPhone 4 and $300 cash before stalking off.
A few weeks later, on May 10, 2012, police set up surveillance on a four-bedroom house at 13362 SW 256th Terrace based on an anonymous tip. Investigators watched Valdez walk from the front door to the mailbox. Approached by cops, he claimed he was just "visiting" the house, but inside, police found a room packed with marijuana plants and 20 pounds of processed weed. Valdez was booked on state cannabis charges.
Four months later, on August 5, Valdez confronted his ex-girlfriend again, surprising her outside her new pad in Doral. He slapped Carrillo across the face and called her a whore, according to a Miami-Dade Police report. On August 7, Carrillo requested protection from domestic violence, claiming Valdez abused her, snorted cocaine, harassed her at the Pink Pony, and threatened to kill her. West Miami Police officers arrested Valdez on a felony armed robbery charge and, as a bail condition, strapped a GPS device to his ankle to ensure he stayed away from Carrillo.
A year after his bold but fruitless Mexican caper, Valdez's criminal run seemed at an end. Instead, he was poised for his biggest rip-off yet.
Twelve minutes after Valdez and his conspirators snatched Villegas' two suitcases full of gold, the ringleader walked back into his West Miami house and stayed put until 8:19 a.m. At 9 o'clock sharp, he rolled up to the apartment of Yuxibeidis Acosta, a doe-eyed brunet stripper from Hialeah whom Valdez had begun dating.
Such precise times are more than guesses: They're the exact data taken from the ankle monitor that Valdez amazingly wore throughout the whole caper. That detail, combined with the court system's breathtaking incompetence afterward, shows how he had learned to play the American criminal justice system like a concert pianist tickles the ivories.
"Raonel was scoping out the gold while out on bond for the marijuana charge and the armed robbery of his ex-girlfriend," says Bolton, the private investigator. "Of course he doesn't care about getting caught because he's always back on the streets."
Valdez certainly gave police and prosecutors plenty of chances to catch up to him. For days after the heist, he peddled his ill-gotten booty at pawnshops around Dade. Then, on October 17, he took Acosta to a car dealer and bought her a 2008 Toyota Yaris.
Five days later, he voluntarily headed to court to answer for his marijuana-trafficking charge. If he was worried about getting pinched for the gold theft, he didn't show it. He was on time, pleaded guilty, and received two years of supervised probation from Judge Victoria Sigler.
Coral Gables Police, meanwhile, finally connected Valdez to the multimillion-dollar heist thanks to an anonymous tip. Villegas quickly identified Valdez from a photo lineup. The day after his pot sentencing, he was arrested in West Miami.
"The fact that this guy has an ankle monitoring device made it easy to place him on the scene," says Dean Wellinghoff, a Gables Police spokesman. With all of that data plus Villegas' testimony, prosecutors had more than a solid case.
Yet at a December bond hearing, Valdez came out on top again. Prosecutors pointed out his prior probation violations, his chronic history of failing to appear in court, and the fact that he allegedly committed his most recent crime while wearing an ankle monitor.
But Valdez's lawyer, Alexander Michaels, convinced Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Leon Firtel that the evidence was mostly circumstantial. What's more, prosecutors hadn't tied Valdez to any organized crime ring. Quri Wasi's investigators now believe he belongs to a crew that participated in his alleged crimes in Mexico. (Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffith would not comment on the case, referring New Times to the court transcripts.)
"I have a duty to do here, and I call it the way I see it," Firtel said while setting Valdez's bond at $75,000 and — amazingly — ordering him to wear yet another ankle monitor. "If I'm wrong, I'm wrong."
He was wrong. Valdez didn't stick around to beat the rap. On March 19, three months after he bonded out, the Miami-Dade Corrections house arrest unit lost track of him after he cut off the bracelet.
He hasn't been seen since, and neither has Quri Wasi's gold. Michaels, his defense attorney, says Valdez might have been kidnapped. "His girlfriend told me she saw two guys pick him up," he relays. "She didn't know who they were."
Shedd, for one, doesn't buy that story. "His last record had him heading west on Okeechobee Road," he says. "For all we know, he could be back in Cuba."
His head in his hands, Villegas leans forward on a beige sofa in the living room of his apartment. It's been two months since the signal on Valdez's GPS tracker disappeared. He no longer ferries gold for Quri Wasi, instead spending his days watching television. "My cousin changed the entire system," Villegas says. "He is now using a Brink's truck with armed guards to pick it up."
Meanwhile, the investigation into the gold heist has been stymied by Valdez's disappearance. "After all the rattling we've done, nothing is happening," Shedd says. "No one is trying to fix the big mistake."
Valdez's tale reveals problems with how Miami's justice system addresses Cuban organized crime, experts say. Rather than using street criminals such as Valdez to get to the top of the local food chain, the court system bounces him around from petty charge to petty charge until he can pull off a major heist and then melt away again. And unlike other foreign-born crooks, it was nearly impossible to deport him despite an escalating record from the moment he set foot in Miami in 2005.
"There was a time when we would put a task force on a shit bird like Valdez and run him and his crew down," says Tom Raffanello, another ex-DEA agent working for Quri Wasi. "But this is a different era for law enforcement. Agencies are faced with revolving political priorities. Guys like Valdez should be at the top of everybody's list. Unfortunately, they are not."
There's certainly plenty of blame to go around in Valdez's case.
First, outside investigators question why local cops didn't investigate Valdez's girlfriend Acosta. Detectives quickly figured out she had assisted Valdez, according to Bolton, by chauffeuring him around during stakeouts of the Opa-locka refinery and Villegas' apartment. She was rewarded with the Toyota purchased five days after the robbery, Bolton alleges. (Acosta, who hasn't been charged with a crime, declined to comment.)
"She participated by driving him around and then helping him cover up his crime," Bolton says. "When she went to visit him in jail, he spoke to her in code about getting rid of incriminating evidence inside her apartment."
Yet when the Coral Gables detectives handling the investigation wanted to obtain a search warrant for Acosta's apartment in Hialeah, their bosses refused to do it, Shedd claims. "I just shake my head at the don't-give-a-shit attitude coming from the higher-ups," Shedd says. "They don't care because our client is in Bolivia."
(James McKee and Velier Zacheco, the Gables detectives working the case, referred calls to spokesman Dean Wellinghoff, who declined to comment because the investigation is open.)
Shedd also blasts Firtel, the judge who let Valdez walk free after his bond hearing. "He should recuse himself from the bench for the rest of his life," Shedd grouses. "He was fucking wrong, all right."
But Michaels, Valdez's attorney, says equal blame belongs to prosecutors for presenting a weak case. "The State Attorney's Office screwed up," he says. "Now they're trying to blame the judge for their ineffectiveness. A person is still presumed innocent until the state proves its case in court."
Bigger picture: Had law enforcement treated Valdez and his freelance crew of criminals the way it had treated the Battle organization and the Santiesteban clan of pot growers, Matojo and his gang might have been busted before they could walk away with millions of dollars in gold. Michael Levine, a former federal undercover agent and law enforcement consultant in New York, says the most effective way to build a case against an organized crime ring is by using racketeering or conspiracy charges.
"It is much easier to convict a bunch of people together than individually," he says. "A racketeering or conspiracy case opens doors to evidence like hearsay. You can take a statement of one conspirator and use it against another."
Instead of connecting Valdez to the larger organization suggested by his ties to grow houses, human trafficking, and Mexican conspiracies, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office assigned the gold heist case to the crime victims unit.
Quri Wasi has certainly made that connection, though. The company has filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court alleging that Valdez, his girlfriend Acosta, and cousins Marrero Leal and Marrero Lara plotted and participated in the gold heist. (Marrero Leal and Marrero Lara, who haven't been criminally charged despite investigators tying them to the crime in their incident reports, did not respond to notes New Times left at their last known address.)
Valdez, meanwhile, was reportedly seen in New Providence, a town near Nassau in the Bahamas, during the first week of June. The Royal Bahamas Police Force issued wanted posters with Valdez's face throughout its precincts.
Villegas admits he's still afraid Valdez will come back. "I'm the only witness, after all," he says. "I thought about moving, but then I said no. I'm not going to live in fear of this guy."
In case Valdez does return, Villegas points to a can of Mace sitting on his table. "I'll be ready for him this time."