South Florida

Last of ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ faces Miami judge after being on lam for 26 years

Gustavo Falcon
Gustavo Falcon AP

The last of the “Cocaine Cowboys,” Gustavo Falcon, faced a Miami federal judge Tuesday on charges of smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States after being on the lam for 26 years.

His defense attorney said he plans to plead not guilty when he is arraigned before Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman on May 11.

The brief hearing had the feeling of a reunion for agents and prosecutors who worked the high-profile case decades ago. Falcon, 55, was captured by U.S. marshals after a long bicycle ride on April 12 in the Orlando area, where he had been living under a fake name in a rented home with his family.

“I have never heard of a cowboy who rides a bicycle,” attorney Howard Srebnick told the Miami Herald, trying to raise doubt about Falcon’s reputation.

Falcon’s court appearance attracted some relatives but mostly news media because he, his older brother, Willie, and others epitomized the Miami Vice era during the cocaine boom of the 1980s. Falcon — younger brother of Augusto “Willie” Falcon and one-time partner with Salvador “Sal” Magluta, both legendary cocaine smugglers — was indicted along with them and several others in 1991.

Gustavo Falcon was last seen in South Florida shortly before he was charged with conspiring to import and distribute 75 tons of cocaine worth $2 billion with brother Willie, partner Magluta and about a dozen other defendants between 1978 and 1991.

The U.S. marshals recently got a big assist in the high-profile fugitive case from the Miami-Dade Police Department, which was running fake names and addresses on Florida databases that Gustavo Falcon had used over the years, said marshals spokesman, Barry Golden.

Samantha Steinberg, a police forensic artist, was running images of Cuban males over the age of 50 in Miami and saw a fake driver’s license with a photo that looked like Gustavo Falcon. “The forensic artist is trained in identifying faces and age progression, so when the fraudulent image of Falcon popped up, she immediately knew it was him,” Golden said.

Steinberg then forwarded the fake license information and photo to police investigators who had worked on the case, and they confirmed the license was obtained by Falcon. Miami-Dade police contacted the U.S. marshals about the bogus license, which had a Hialeah address. But deputy marshals later learned that the license was obtained in the Kissimmee area, where Falcon had been involved in an accident in 2013. Deputy marshals then trained their investigation on that area.

Falcon had obtained fake driver’s licenses for himself, and his wife, Amelia, in September of 1991, Golden said. The parents went by the names of Luis Andre Reiss and Maria Reiss, he said. In addition, Falcon had obtained fraudulent Social Security cards for himself and the wife.

Falcon and his family were renting a Kissimmee home on Cavendish Drive, which the marshals had under surveillance. Golden said deputy marshals from Miami and Orlando spotted Falcon and his wife for the first time as they were departing on the bike ride and arrested them a few blocks from their rented home.

Gustavo Falcon was last seen in South Florida shortly before he was indicted in 1991 on charges of conspiring to import and distribute 75 tons of cocaine worth $2 billion with his brother Willie, partner Magluta and about a dozen other defendants between 1978 and 1991.

Willie and Sal, who dropped out of Miami Senior High School, were recognized as kingpins among the legendary Cocaine Cowboys who turned South Florida into a deadly hub of drug trafficking in the 1980s. The partners, who grew up in Miami’s Cuban-American community, used their ocean-racing speedboats to haul Colombian cocaine from the Caribbean to the shores of South Florida.

The feds’ “criminal enterprise” case against Willie and Sal, who were accused not only of drug trafficking but also hiring Colombian hit men to kill former associates who snitched on them, seemed solid on all fronts. But the high-profile Miami trial went terribly awry.

In 1996, Falcon and Magluta were acquitted of all drug-trafficking charges — but there was a sinister explanation for the shocking outcome that would soon surface after the trial. The U.S. attorney’s office and FBI would discover that Falcon and Magluta had bought off three jury members, including the foreman, to win their case.

Prosecutors stepped up the investigation, targeting not only The Boys but even more of the associates in their network, including family members and lawyers.

Magluta, always recognized as the mastermind of the organization, was retried and convicted of drug-related money-laundering charges in 2002. Magluta, 62, was sentenced to 205 years in prison, which was reduced to 195 years in 2006.

After his partner’s retrial, Willie Falcon struck a plea deal in 2003 on similar money-laundering charges with Miami federal prosecutors Pat Sullivan and Michael Davis. Falcon, 61, sentenced to 20 years in prison, is scheduled to be released in June.

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