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A $2.8 Million Gold Heist Shows Cuban Gangs Still Rule Miami

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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.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.