The Benitez brothers were masters of Medicare fraud, prosecutors say.
They spent their Medicare millions on Mediterranean-style homes, apartments, hotels, boats, a helicopter, even a water park -- all in the resort area of Bavaro, Dominican Republic, court records show.
After they were indicted on fraud charges in late May, Carlos, Jose and Luis Benitez used their Cuban passports to travel from Miami to the Dominican Republic, then to Cuba.
The three brothers are accused of defrauding the U.S. government's health insurance program by billing $110 million in false claims for HIV drug-infusion treatments at their dozen Miami-Dade clinics. Medicare paid their companies about $84 million in reimbursements between 2001 and 2004, according to federal authorities and court records.
The Benitezes -- who came to this country in 1995 and became U.S. citizens five years later -- have a lot of company. They are among 56 fugitives charged since 2004 with filing at least $272 million in phony Medicare claims before disappearing from Miami-Dade. Collectively, the fugitives absconded with at least $142 million in taxpayer funds.
Thirty-three of the 36 fugitives whose names have been released by authorities are Cuban immigrants, most of whom came to the United States during the past 15 years, according to FBI, immigration and court records obtained by The Miami Herald. Half of those fugitives have fled to Cuba, according to the FBI, which based its information on travel, customs, passports, bank and computer records.
The majority of some 700 Medicare fraud defendants charged since 2004 are immigrants who share an implicit trust when they join small criminal enterprises in South Florida to defraud the government program, according to perpetrators, prosecutors and investigators.
Timothy Delaney, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's office in Miami, said Medicare fraud has spread over the past decade in certain pockets of South Florida's population of 750,000 Cuban Americans -- just as it has in heavily populated immigrant communities in other major cities.
Medicare is seen as an easy mark for fraud because it is built on an honor system that pays claims quickly with scant review. Also, the odds of getting caught are low and the odds of making millions are high.
Delaney said certain segments of Cuban immigrants in Miami and Hialeah -- just like Armenians in Los Angeles, West Africans in Houston and Russians in New York -- trust one another to form mini-rackets.
''We have unscrupulous providers, willing doctors and willing practitioners,'' said Delaney. ``They don't think they've committed a crime.''
Among the known Medicare fugitives who fled to Cuba: Eduardo Moreno, who came to the United States in 1997.
Moreno, 39, used a network of offices to operate medical equipment and HIV drug-infusion scams totaling $7.2 million in false Medicare claims, according to federal court records. He bought himself a $445,000 southwest Miami-Dade home and a $200,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom.
When the FBI arrested him last year on fraud charges, he made a $250,000 bond, then skipped the country -- back to Havana, according to the FBI. Agents tracked him through his travel records and his relatives.
Moreno is among at least 18 identified fugitives suspected of fleeing to Cuba -- with another 18 escaping to other parts of Latin America, Europe, Canada, Florida or unknown locations, according to the FBI's account of travel records and other information.