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

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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 His bond was revoked.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.' "

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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.