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.