To suggest that reputed Spanish drug lord Álvaro López Tardón liked the finer things in life would be an understatement.
Before his arrest in Miami, he bought 13 bayfront condos, including a $1 million-plus penthouse at the Continuum in South Beach, and 17 luxury cars, including a 2008 black Bugatti Veyron for $1.2 million and a 2003 black Ferrari Enzo for almost $1 million. That’s excluding Florida sales taxes.
For the past six weeks, López Tardón, accused boss of a Spanish cocaine ring dubbed “Los Miami,” has been a lone defendant standing trial in Miami federal court on conspiracy and money laundering charges. His brother, Artemio López Tardón, charged along with him, could not make the Miami trial because he is being held with dozens of other Spanish defendants on drug-trafficking charges in Spain.
López Tardón, 39, is accused of washing more than $20 million worth of dirty euros by tapping into his organization’s drug profits to buy high-priced condos, cars and other collectibles in Miami during the roaring era beginning in 2000. The 12-person federal jury will begin deliberations Friday, after closing arguments Thursday.
“If you want to follow the little drug dealer, you follow the drugs,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Gonzalez told jurors. “If you want to follow the big drug dealer, you follow the money.”
“He’s a really, really big drug dealer who made the mistake of moving his money into the United States,” said Gonzalez, who called López Tardón’s buying frenzy “mind-boggling,” pointing out that he spent about $1 million on fancy Audemars Piguet watches alone.
To hide his role in the real estate transactions, López Tardón’s cash deals were carried out under the name of a shell company or straw buyer, including 11 purchases at The Mark on Brickell Bay Drive and One Miami on South Biscayne Boulevard, the prosecutor argued.
But López Tardón’s defense attorney, Howard Srebnick, countered that the millions his client spent in Miami came from a family-owned exotic car dealership and an epicurean shop in Madrid — not from drug trafficking.
“The government is saying, ‘Look at all the cash, look at all the watches. He must be a drug dealer,’ ’’ Srebnick told jurors. “Well, let’s do the math.”
He called the family’s dealership and shop “legitimate businesses” that generated more than $20 million in revenue, citing Spanish government tax records.
Srebnick also told jurors that his client disclosed dozens of wire transfers from Spain to Miami, arguing that he was not trying to hide anything illicit from the U.S. government. “It was not a scheme to conceal,” he said.
In a lighter moment, Srebnick challenged the prosecution for filing a money-laundering count against López Tardón for paying Braman Motors in cash for servicing his Bugatti Veyron in 2010.
“Charging someone $10,700 for a tune-up — that’s sounds like highway robbery,” he told the jurors.
López Tardón lived off and on in Miami between 2001 and 2011. He resided in the penthouse suite at South Beach’s Continuum, before his arrest by FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents in July 2011. Deemed a flight risk, he’s been detained ever since in another high-rise building, the Miami Federal Detention Center, just blocks from his former waterfront playground.
His alleged drug-trafficking empire began to crumble soon after his Santeria priest, Vincente Orlando Cardelle, got caught smuggling some of his cash through Miami International Airport earlier in 2011.
A one-time partner, David William Pollack, would later admit hiding cocaine inside Peruvian pepper crates bound for López Tardón’s organization in Spain. And a former girlfriend, Fabiani Krentz, would acknowledge investing his drug profits in Miami’s soaring condominium market.
All three pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2012.
López Tardón’s chances of being acquitted on conspiracy and money-laundering charges appear slim. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard denied a bid for acquittal by his defense attorneys, Srebnick and Richard Klugh — before closing arguments started Thursday.
Both lawyers argued the prosecution failed to prove that López Tardón moved millions of dollars worth of euros from a “specified unlawful activity” — drug-trafficking. They also argued that their client did not try to conceal his role in transferring the money and buying real estate in Miami.
But the judge strongly disagreed, citing the testimony of two witnesses who knew about López Tardón’s alleged cocaine business. Lenard also said that Lopez Tardon used “girlfriends, mistresses, friends, associates and fictitious accounts” to move millions of drug profits from Spain to Miami with “unusual secrecy.”
“The government has proven many, many transactions that the defendant was involved in ... to avoid reporting requirements under federal and state laws,” Lenard said.
In addition to amassing a valuable condo portfolio, López Tardón and his close circle acquired a fleet of luxury automobiles. Besides the pair of million-buck exotic sports cars, the stable included a 2006 black Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, $343,000; 2009 Mercedes Maybach 57S, $335,000; a 2010 black Rolls-Royce Ghost, $318,000; a 2005 black Bentley, $172,000; and a 2005 black Aston Martin, $166,000.
López Tardón and his wife, Sharon Cohen — who testified against him — and others also spent a small fortune on Italian handbags, shoes and other leather goods at Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. López Tardón and his separated wife, who once worked for a Miami escort service, also blew more than $200,000 on plastic surgery, jewelry and artwork, according to trial evidence. Among the items: a cheetah print tusk.
Where did López Tardón get all his ill-gotten loot? From Colombian and Peruvian cocaine sold in Spain, according to Gonzalez, the prosecutor.
At trial, Gonzalez put on a courtroom demonstration for the 12-person jury, showing that $9.5 million in alleged drug money was wired from Spain to López Tardón’s accounts at the Bank of America, BB&T and Bank Atlantic, among other notable Miami financial institutions.
He pointed out that another $2 million worth of euros was smuggled through Miami International Airport by López Tardón, his brother, Artemio, and various couriers, without declaring the money. López Tardón and his surrogates would routinely convert the euros to dollars at American Express and other currency exchange businesses in Miami, he told jurors.
The prosecutor called López Tardón’s separated wife as a witness. She testified that when she became close to López Tardón in the mid-2000’s he told her that his phones were being tapped and that he was expecting to receive millions of euros from Spain.
Another key witness: David William Pollack. He testified that Lopez recruited him into his narcotics business, and that he flew numerous times to Peru to package loads of cocaine for shipment to Spain. He also testified that he assisted López Tardón’s organization by traveling to Spain to help distribute cocaine and smuggle euros into the United States.
López Tardón’s attorney, Srebnick, called Pollack a “liar” who was only trying to reduce his prison sentence.
Ultimately, when López Tardón was arrested at his South Beach penthouse condo, his brother and more than a dozen members of their “Los Miami” organization were rounded up in Madrid.
In July 2011, the Spanish National Police broke through the front door of Artemio López Tardón’s mansion in Madrid. According to published reports, police soon found 400,000 euros scattered throughout the residence, another $100,000 stuffed in a dirty laundry basket and $5 million hidden beneath an elevator.
Police would then uncover the biggest stash of cash buried between the foot of López Tardón’s bed and his large Jacuzzi: 19 million euros — about $26 million in U.S. dollars today.
All together, the haul was reportedly the largest seizure of drug cash in Europe.