Crime

After 26 years on the lam, ‘last’ Miami Cocaine Cowboy arrested near Orlando

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.

For 26 years, federal authorities in Miami suspected that the fugitive brother of notorious Cocaine Cowboy Augusto “Willie” Falcon was hiding in Mexico or Colombia.

“Nobody thought he was in the United States,” said Barry Golden, a deputy and spokesman with the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami.

All these years — or at least since the late 1990s — it turns out Gustavo Falcon, 55, was living with his family about 200 miles from Miami near the state’s theme park capital, Disney World.

Deputy U.S. marshals had been watching Gustavo Falcon’s rental home in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando, in recent days. And on Wednesday, they followed him and his wife as they went on a 40-mile bicycle ride — sometimes losing the couple, then finding them again because bike helmets and sunglasses made it difficult to identify the fugitive. Eventually, the deputies nabbed him at an intersection in Kissimmee in the afternoon. Falcon told the deputies that he and his family had been living in the Orlando area for almost two decades.

Falcon — who had been charged with his older brother, Willie, infamous partner Salvador “Sal” Magluta and several others in 1991 with smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States — was booked into the Orange County jail at 6:24 p.m. Falcon, also known as “Taby,” agreed on Thursday in federal court not to challenge his removal from Orlando to Miami. That means Falcon could soon be transferred here.

Falcon’s arrest is not only a throwback to the Miami Vice era of the 1980s. It is a reminder that he was on the lam instead of standing trial with his older brother and Magluta, who beat the criminal justice system by bribing three jurors to win acquittals in the mid-1990s. After that travesty, prosecutors would retry them on drug-related money-laundering charges and send them to prison for decades.

Jim DeFede of CBS4, the Herald’s news partner, first reported Gustavo Falcon’s arrest on Twitter Wednesday night.

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The U.S. marshals caught a break when they recently discovered that Gustavo Falcon and his wife got into a car accident in the Orlando area in 2013 while using fake IDs with a Hialeah address. The marshals confirmed that Falcon was using a new identity and focused the investigation on Kissimmee.

Falcon had obtained fake driver’s licenses for himself, his wife, Amelia, and their two grown children, 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 his wife.

Falcon and his family were renting a Kissimmee home, which the marshals had under surveillance in the past few days. “We figured this all out a month ago,’’ Golden said. “We pulled his driver’s license and saw it was the same Gustavo Falcon.’’

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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, known as “The Boys” since dropping 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.

He’s the last of the Cocaine Cowboys

Barry Golden, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami

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.

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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. atttorney’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.

Gustavo Falcon’s arrest on Wednesday closes the final chapter on the Miami Vice era. “He’s the last of the Cocaine Cowboys,” Golden said.

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