After 26 years on the lam and another year in jail, infamous drug smuggler Gustavo Falcon wrote the federal judge who would decide his fate a letter confessing shame and regret.
The five-page handwritten note to U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno was revealed in federal court on Wednesday as Falcon, 56, faced sentencing in one of the nation's biggest and oldest drug-trafficking cases.
Gustavo, the younger brother of another infamous Miami cocaine trafficker, Willie Falcon, lamented that after he arrived from Cuba with his family at age 5, he had the opportunity to study hard and play basketball — but he blew it, dropping out to follow his charismatic brother into the easy-money drug trade.
"I regret that I did not develop my own identity as a teenager," Falcon wrote. "When my brother asked me to help him with his drug business, I did. I should have had the courage to say no. But I loved and looked up to him."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Moreno wound up settling on 11 years of punishment for his plea deal on a drug-trafficking conspiracy charge — largely splitting the difference between the nine years sought by Falcon's defense lawyer and the 14 recommended by prosecutors.
"It just seems like a reasonable sentence," Moreno said, while Falcon's family and supporters watched the proceeding.
Moreno said he couldn't fathom giving Falcon less time, saying it "doesn't seem fair" after he "enjoyed life" in the Orlando area between 1991 and his arrest last year. The judge also kept noting the tons of cocaine distributed by the Falcon-Magluta organization, which he called a "crime family," during the "Miami Vice" era.
Falcon, aka "Taby," pleaded guilty in February in the same federal court where his older brother, Willie, and his partner, Sal Magluta, met their downfall long ago.
The younger Falcon was arrested a year ago by U.S. marshals who captured him south of Orlando after he took a long bike ride with his wife. Falcon, initially suspected of being in Mexico or Colombia, was arrested on April 12 in the Kissimmee area where he had been living with family members under fake names since the late 1990s.
Gustavo Falcon was last seen in South Florida shortly before he and several other defendants were named in an initial indictment charging brother Willie and partner Sal Magluta with conspiring to import and distribute 75 tons of cocaine worth $2 billion between 1978 and 1991.
But Gustavo Falcon disappeared instead of standing trial with “The Boys,” the nickname for Willie and Sal, who beat the criminal justice system by bribing three jurors to win acquittals in the mid-1990s. They were later convicted of drug-related money-laundering charges and sent to prison for decades.
Magluta, 63, is serving a life sentence at a Supermax prison in Colorado. Willie Falcon, 62, who pleaded guilty and served a 20-year sentence, was released from prison last June but is now fighting a deportation order to his native Cuba because he never became a U.S. citizen.
Willie and Sal, both Miami Senior High School dropouts, were recognized as kingpins among the "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 loads of Colombian cocaine from the Caribbean to the shores of South Florida.
In his plea deal with the feds, Gustavo Falcon pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine in a multiple-count indictment. Falcon was held accountable for arranging a 400-kilo shipment of Colombian cocaine from Southern California to South Florida in late 1989. Prosecutors said he was responsible for tractor-trailer shipments totaling 3,000 kilos of cocaine that were stored at an associate’s South Florida home through the early 1990s.
But those drug shipments represented a fraction of the massive cocaine-distribution network run by Willie Falcon and Magluta, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Clark said. "That was just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
Clark, joined by prosecutor Michael Davis, said Gustavo Falcon served as his older brother's "right-hand man," as he urged the judge to give him the high end of the sentencing guidelines.
A pair of red ledgers used by Magluta, which were seized on Oct. 15, 1991, from one of his properties, showed the “reach” of the organization, according to Gustavo Falcon's plea agreement. Between January 1990 and October 1991, the ledgers reflected the distribution of 8,921 kilos of cocaine — almost nine tons — for a total price of $142,509,800.
Despite the legendary status of the Falcon-Magluta syndicate, Gustavo Falcon’s change of plea before Moreno seemed anti-climactic after years of life on the lam. One significant concession that his defense attorney, Howard Srebnick, obtained in his client’s plea deal was a guarantee that prosecutors won’t charge him for being a fugitive from justice for 26 years or charge his wife and their two grown children with harboring him.
During Wednesday's hearing, Srebnick pressed for more concessions, saying his client deserved nine years in prison because a few other defendants in the Falcon-Magluta organization received that kind of punishment after pleading guilty.
"We're not talking about a slap on the wrist," Srebnick told the judge. "We're talking nine years in prison."
But Moreno wouldn't budge below 11 years, highlighting the defendant's life on the lam.
In settling into Central Florida, Falcon had obtained fake driver’s licenses for himself, and his wife, Amelia, in September of 1991. 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. But last April, with help from Miami-Dade Police who sorted through databases, U.S. marshals tracked Falcon down to a rental home in Kissimmee.
In his letter to the judge, Falcon said he regretted not turning himself in 27 years ago but feared if he had done so, he would have lost his wife and two children.
"I convinced myself that it was better to leave with my wife and children," he wrote to Moreno. "I was afraid that if I went to prison for a long time, my wife would move on, and my children would grow up without a father."