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Reggae Great Buju Banton Is Locked Up on Drug Charges. Was He Entrapped?

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Johnson said he did $30 million deals, and Buju countered that he did $50 million deals. Buju claimed that he would never get caught because he was only an investor. He threw out figures on the price of kilos in Panama and Suriname. Looking to really outdo everyone, Buju expressed interest in the African diamond trade because, well, "diamonds are king."

Yet at these meetings, Buju stumbled on details that might be common knowledge to an international drug trafficker. He mixed up kilos with pounds and underestimated certain costs. Johnson corrected him on several points. After the Marriott, Buju's appreciation for Johnson came to an end.

"When I leave Mr. Johnson, I am going, like, 'Idiot!' " Buju would testify later, shaking his head and rolling his eyes to convey how annoying Johnson had become.

Buju had enough of hanging out, getting drunk, and playing Scarface. Johnson called him throughout August, September, October, and November. Buju politely made himself unavailable until the fateful day when he accepted an invitation to Sarasota, talked more about coke over margaritas, and then got locked in a warehouse with 20 kilos and two men he presumed to be armed Colombian drug dealers.


On Valentine's Day 2011, hours after winning the Grammy for best reggae album, Buju stood up from a small wooden table in a Tampa federal courtroom and bumped fists with David Oscar Markus, his Harvard-trained, Miami-based attorney. To their right, at a separate table, sat their opponents: James Preston, an archetypal federal prosecutor with thick white hair, and Dan McCaffrey, a buzzed-cut, goateed special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

This was the second time the lawyers would face off over the fate of Buju. In September 2010, the government's first attempt to prosecute him ended in a hung jury stalled at 7-5 in favor of not guilty. Buju faced only two charges that time. In between the first and second trials, prosecutors tacked on two more: attempted possession with the intent to distribute cocaine and using the wires to facilitate a drug trafficking offense. The basis for the wires charge was that Buju had said that one line — "Yo, find out how much he wants" — in the warehouse.

Over the weeklong retrial, Preston teased out details trying to prove that Buju was a legitimate player in the international drug trade. He showed jurors the grainy, green-tinged surveillance video of Buju dabbing his tongue with government-issued cocaine at the Sarasota warehouse and played tape recordings of his slurred drug talk. He labeled Buju a broker who expected to get a cut of the money from whatever deal Ian Thomas and Alex Johnson reached.

But Buju and his defense attorney swore the singer was just a boaster who talked a good game. Markus set out to destroy the credibility of the government's star witness, Alex Johnson. For that, he had plenty of ammunition.

Johnson was born in Colombia in October 1949. "This con artist, Alexander Johnson, imported thousands of kilograms of cocaine and marijuana into this country in the '80s and '90s. Not a little here, a little there. Thousands," Markus explained to the jury in his opening statement.

At the time, Johnson operated under the street name "El Gordo" and worked as a transporter for the Colombian cartels. Then, in 1993, U.S. authorities arrested him while he was trying to import 700 kilos. Facing life in prison and overwhelming evidence of his guilt, Johnson decided to cooperate. He was able to get the sentence reduced to 20 years, but that was still too long for his liking. So he pointed his finger at others and got another ten years knocked off. Then, after serving fewer than three years, Johnson convinced the feds that he would be of greater use on the outside. He walked from prison in 1996, getting his probation waived in the process. Johnson was a free man with a new job title: confidential informant.

He has excelled as a CI, working for the DEA, the FBI, and other national and local law enforcement agencies. Johnson isn't paid a salary for this gig; rather, he gets a cut of the money seized in the busts he arranges. It's like a commission, and he has earned nearly $3.5 million in commission — enough to buy a plush home with a swimming pool for $890,000 within a secured, gated community in Davie.

"Now, you will hear when people make money and when they work, they pay taxes. Not Alex Johnson... He owes almost $200,000 to the IRS," Markus said to the jury. "Alex Johnson isn't going to pay the IRS, isn't going to pay his mortgage, isn't going to pay his credit cards. You know what Alex Johnson did? Filed for bankruptcy last year."

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Chris Sweeney