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

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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.

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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.