ISLAMORADA -- On June 3, 2010, after serving 15 years for trafficking drugs through the Florida Keys, Jorge Cabrera walked out the doors of federal prison in Miami as a free and basically anonymous man.
So much had changed since 1996. He no longer was the notorious, dark-haired smuggler who did business with drug lord Pablo Escobar and made international headlines for photos taken with Hillary Clinton at the White House, Al Gore at a Coral Gables fundraiser and Fidel Castro in Cuba.
That part of his life had become a faded footnote. He was leaving prison as a graying but energetic 54-year-old, ready to start his next chapter with an empty bank account and no idea what he was going to do to make a legal living in a now-strange world.
“I couldn’t even ride in a car without getting sick. My body wasn’t used to it,” Cabrera said.
It took time, but the charismatic Cuban American got back on his feet. He returned to his roots as a go-getter entrepreneur in his hometown of Islamorada, dealing once again with bundles of merchandise. Only this time, it’s not marijuana or cocaine. It’s used cardboard.
“I’ve gone from bales to bales,” Cabrera said with a big grin.
Cabrera, who already had started a container business for construction debris, got into recycling after an old friend told him about his new business’ big problem. “The cardboard is out of control,” said Jorge Hoyo, who bought the Sunshine Cuban Café & Market three years ago.
Cabrera figured that other mom-and-pop businesses must be having the same problem. He conducted his own pilot program to see how much cardboard small businesses produced.
He went to his childhood friend, Betsy Jacocks, owner of the Trading Post market and deli in Islamorada, to borrow her cardboard compactor. She had the only small business in the island community that produced enough cardboard to justify the $15,000 piece of equipment. She bought her first one 25 years ago, and said she saves about $1,200 a month in waste-disposal fees. Cabrera determined then that cardboard could be profitable.
His office at Key Lime Rolloff Services, filled with pictures from the old days, is on an industrial lot on the bay side of U.S. 1, where he landed his own helicopter during the multimillionaire years when he wrote a $20,000 check to the Democratic Party that got him an invitation to a White House Christmas party and a posh fundraiser attended by Gore. That helicopter is long gone, but dry-docked on the lot is an old boat that he used to pick up drugs from airdrops off the shore of Colombia.
Now, Cabrera doesn’t need to conduct his business in secrecy. He happily posed for pictures in his mountain of cardboard, once boxes that brought tomatoes, refrigerators and Smirnoff vodka to the Keys, and now ready for compacting. About 50 bales of cardboard, stacked 12 feet high, awaited transport by tractor-trailer to recyclers in Miami. Cabrera says he gets paid $80 to $115 a ton, depending on the market.
Each bale has its exact weight written in marker on the side. They average about 1,000 pounds.
“I learned I had to weigh my own or I’d get cheated, just like when I smuggled,” Cabrera said.
Corrugated cardboard is nowhere near as good a moneymaker as drugs. During his Miami vice days, Cabrera said, marijuana fetched about $8,000 for a 40-pound bale. And 35 kilos of cocaine went for more than $500,000.
Cabrera has found out the hard way that recycling is not for those who want to make a quick buck. It has taken 2 ½ years to get to the point where he is now — breaking even.
He started with daily pickup routes that began at 5 a.m. and stretched 36 miles. Through trial and error, he discovered how to operate more efficiently and economically. He now builds his customers’ collection containers that look like large dog cages. Welding skills he learned in his youth have come in handy.
Cabrera, who runs around the tourist town in rubber boots and wears his hair in a ponytail, services about 160 local businesses.
His goal is to have 450 commercial customers. They are all handshake deals.
The big payoff is coming, Cabrera said: “Once I get the volume, I’ll be able to send the cardboard directly to Japan and China, where it’s like $135 to $200 per ton. It will be cha-ching, cha-ching.”
The road to legit has had its bumps.
“I didn’t care that people I’ve known for years were making fun of me for pulling cardboard out of dumpsters,” he said.
But Cabrera got angry when the legality of his business was questioned by an employee of Key Largo’s franchise solid waste contractor and also during discussions of an Islamorada volunteer committee that was formed to analyze the collection of the community’s trash and recycling with its solid waste franchise contract set to expire in September.
“Some people chose to hold my past against me and assume my recycling is illegal,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera, who has been in jail three times on smuggling-related charges, said he now makes sure he goes by the book. He secured the proper state recycling license and got Monroe County’s first specialty hauler license specifically for commercial recycling.
And as it turns out, Cabrera and his shoestring operation have collected almost as much tonnage of recycling as Islamorada’s garbage and recycling franchise contractor for the past decade, Veolia Environmental Services.
John Sutter, Islamorada’s director of public works and parks and recreation, said Cabrera’s recycling effort has been “ahead of the curve.”
Key Lime reported to the state it collected 511 tons of cardboard last year in Islamorada and neighboring Key Largo. Veolia had not reported its Islamorada recycling data to the state in years. When the numbers finally were added up this month for Islamorada, Veolia had collected just 687 tons of non-yard waste recyclables, which include glass, plastic and cardboard, for a rate under 10 percent.
“The village is nowhere near where we need to be on recycling,” Sutter said. “We need to start doing what’s right. People did not come to the Keys for the ballet. People came here for the environment.”
To improve, Islamorada is considering following Lee County and mandating commercial recycling, with businesses allowed to opt out by paying a fee. But Islamorada council member Mike Forster, owner of the popular Mangrove Mike’s Cafe, said businesses still would have the right to choose how to dispose of their own recycling.
“Mike has one of my cages in the back,” Cabrera said.
While the volunteer committee recommended renegotiating Advanced Disposal’s contract, the Islamorada Village Council decided the $3.5-million-a-year contract was too important not to be put out to bid. Guess who is working on making a proposal?
“I’m going for it,” Cabrera said.
While Cabrera has been a slick wheeler-dealer since he sold lobsters at a Miami gas station when he was 9, he credits the takeoff of his cardboard business to “Momma.”
Georgina Cabrera, who will turn 80 in April, drove her Nissan pickup truck from Islamorada to Key Largo always searching for businesses that were throwing their cardboard into the regular garbage dumpsters.
“I give them a card and say my son will pick up the cardboard for free,” she said. “This is easy for you.”
Said Cabrera: “Nobody could say no to Momma.”
It has not been a hard sell, considering Islamorada’s and Key Largo’s franchise contractors both charge for cardboard pickup. Veolia’s rates range from $66 to $366 a month.
Jacocks, owner of the Trading Post, was one of the few business owners in Islamorada who used to make a profit by selling her cardboard; because recyclers in Miami would pick it up because it was baled. But she says they wouldn’t show up when the prices dropped. Now, she gives all her cardboard to Cabrera.
“Jorge has been Johnny on the spot,” she said. “And I want to see him do well.”