South Florida

Famed Cocaine Cowboy about to get out of prison — but now faces deportation ride to Cuba

Revisiting the Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta case

In this archival footage, the story of Willie Falcon and Salvador Magluta is reported on by Miami news station WPLG.
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In this archival footage, the story of Willie Falcon and Salvador Magluta is reported on by Miami news station WPLG.

Willie Falcon, who together with high school pal Sal Magluta, helped turn Miami into the country's cocaine capital in the 1970s and '80s, is scheduled to be released from prison on Saturday after serving most of a 20-year prison sentence for money laundering.

But Falcon, 61, won't become a free man and won't be coming home to Miami. As soon as he leaves the custody of a Kentucky federal prison, Falcon will be detained by immigration authorities and transferred to a detention facility in Louisiana or Alabama.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detainer on the infamous Cocaine Cowboy will keep him behind bars while authorities decide whether to deport him to his native country — Cuba. Of course, for that to happen, the government run by the late Fidel Castro's brother, Raul, would have to agree to take him back.

Falcon, a Miami Senior High School dropout, has a problem that he could have resolved long ago but just didn't get around to: He's a Cuban immigrant who adjusted his immigration status to become a lawful permanent resident in the United States but he never took the final step of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. As a convicted felon in the United States, that makes him deportable.

Falcon, who unlike Magluta cut a plea deal to avoid a life sentence, plans to fight his detention and possible removal to Cuba.

“I am certain that immigration is going to aggressively seek to deport him,” said Miami criminal defense attorney Rick Diaz, who represented Falcon along with lawyer Jeffrey Weiner. “But it's one thing to say you're going to send him back; Cuba would still have to take him. ... He did his time. He paid his debt to society. We're even.”

“He lived the majority of his life here,” Diaz added. “He has nobody there.”

The FBI, which led the investigation into the Falcon-Magluta cocaine-smuggling organization, requested that immigration authorities detain Falcon at the end of his prison term.

A spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in New Orleans said it “lodged an immigration detainer” on Falcon last Wednesday, calling him “a citizen of Cuba.”

The spokesman, Thomas Byrd, could not provide information on where Falcon would be transferred after he completes his prison term on Saturday. He also could not say whether the agency plans to seek a so-called final order of removal, the technical term for deportation.

But in a statement, Byrd told the Miami Herald: “ICE is focused on identifying, arresting and removing public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws.”

Ultimately, if ICE tries to deport Falcon, the decision would be up to an immigration judge.

Since January — when President Barack Obama suddenly ended America’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy allowing Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay and qualify for residency and citizenship — the prospect of deporting thousands of convicted Cuban felons back to the island has become a possibility.

The U.S. government counts 28,400 of them — all free after serving prison time for their felony convictions in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The issue is controversial because among the large number of Cuban felons now facing deportation are those convicted of committing more than 2,000 murders in the United States.

For decades, all of the released felons have been allowed to live in Florida and other parts of the United States under the supervision of immigration authorities because the federal government had no diplomatic relations with Cuba to deport them since the early 1960s. Of the total facing deportations, about 18,000 live in Florida.

After maintaining a hard line to never take them back, Cuban officials now say they would consider the proposition on a case-by-case basis — one of the topics in negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba since diplomatic relations were restored in 2015.

On Friday, President Donald Trump is expected to make a major announcement on U.S.-Cuba policy during his planned visit to Miami, but it’s not known whether he would address this sensitive issue.

For Falcon, the changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba could not have come at a worse time.

Falcon’s criminal defense attorney, Diaz, said he has spoken with his family members and they are gearing up to hire an immigration lawyer to challenge his detention and possible deportation.

“The government has no evidence that he’s a danger to the community,” Diaz said. “He was not convicted of a violent crime. He’s not Magluta.”

In 1991, Falcon and Magluta were indicted along with about a dozen associates on charges of conspiring to import and distribute 75 tons of cocaine worth $2 billion dating back to 1978.

Willie and Sal, who also 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 in 1996, the high-profile Miami trial ended with implausible acquittals for Falcon and Magluta. After the trial, the U.S. attorney’s office and FBI soon discovered 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 by a federal judge who concluded he used drug money to hire assassins to kill government witnesses. On appeal, Magluta’s sentence was reduced to 195 years.

Instead of going to trial with his partner, Falcon struck a plea deal in 2003 on a single charge of conspiring to commit money-laundering. He was sentenced to the maximum 20 years.

But the Miami Vice saga did not there. Falcon’s brother, Gustavo, was arrested in Orlando by the U.S. marshals in April after being on the lam for 26 years. Last week, Gustavo Falcon, 55, pleaded not guilty to drug-trafficking charges and is awaiting trial.