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‘The Boys’ Face Trial as New Tide of Drug Smuggling Rises

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The kings of cocaine,” prosecutor Christopher Clark called them. “Willie and Sal. Los Muchachos. The Boys.”

In the 1980s, when it seemed like much of South Florida was caught in the Miami Vice-like grip of drug smuggling and Colombian cocaine cowboys staged bloody shopping center shootouts in suburbia, no one rode higher in the saddle, federal agents said, than Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta.

From 1978 until their arrests in 1991, these two Cuban-born pals--who dropped out of Miami High School when they were seniors to run a drug-smuggling enterprise--imported 75 tons of cocaine into the United States and earned profits of more than $2 billion, prosecutors said.

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With the cash they made hauling duffel bags full of white powder into Florida, according to prosecutors, Falcon and Magluta bought cattle ranches, mansions, luxury cars and cigarette racing boats.

“When they drove, they drove Rolls-Royces,” Clark told jurors in federal court. “When they drank champagne, Dom Perignon flowed.”

Now Magluta is balding, Falcon is thin and gray-haired and both wear jailhouse pallors that reflect their four years in maximum security. When they turn to whisper to the high-priced defense attorneys at their sides, each peers over bifocals. They are only 40 years old but they look older.

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The arrest and trial of Falcon and Magluta on a host of smuggling charges was billed as the final chapter in a colorful, high-rolling saga of South Florida as the capital of cocaine craziness. But since “the boys” were caught in 1991, strange things have happened. At least three potential prosecution witnesses have been murdered and two others have been wounded in assassination attempts.

The defendants maintain that they had nothing to do with those shootings, and they have not been charged in connection with the attacks. In fact, no one has been charged.

But authorities consider Magluta and Falcon dangerous and escape risks. Up until the trial began in October, Falcon was held in the maximum security federal prison in Marion, Ill., and Magluta in Atlanta.

In U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno’s 10th-floor courtroom, security measures are unprecedented. At least a dozen armed U.S. marshals are posted in the courtroom and in the hallway. Visitors to the courtroom must pass through a metal detector to enter the building--and a second one on the 10th floor. They also must show identification and sign in.

Outside the courthouse, meanwhile, law enforcement officials wonder if a second generation of would-be Willies and Sals has launched a new era of entrepreneurial drug smuggling. In the past three months, almost 11,000 pounds of cocaine have been seized from small boats headed for South Florida.

This week, another 5,000 pounds of cocaine were seized from a Miami townhouse and a tobacco shop, where federal agents also found 30 boxes of black-market Cuban Cohiba cigars.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of smaller traffickers, offloading mother ships and airdrops in the Bahamas, much as we did in the ‘80s,” said James Milford, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Miami field office.

Agents surmise that recent arrests of several Cali cartel bosses in Colombia may have caused a leadership void and presented “a situation where someone who was a worker bee might have an opportunity to move up into the ranks should he be able to deliver some loads successfully,” said Michael Sheehan, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service in Miami. “Willie and Sal started small and grew large, and some freelancers might be trying that.”

In any case, Sheehan said, drug smuggling will always be a problem in South Florida. “We are geographically close to the supply and the smuggling infrastructure, the distribution routes and the money flow are established,” he said. “It is so ingrained here.”

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And there is no better primer on how to succeed in the drug trade, according to investigators, than the story of Willie and Sal.

After dropping out of high school, “the boys” made a modest living selling small quantities of cocaine and marijuana in Miami, according to prosecutors. Their break came in 1978 through an old friend named Jorge Valdes, an accountant who has testified that he had been working with several Colombian companies that turned out to be fronts for the drug cartels.

After a drug deal fell apart one day, Valdes said that he asked Magluta if he could help unload 30 kilos of cocaine of which Valdes was having trouble disposing. Sure, they told him, according to Valdes.

From that beginning, Magluta and Falcon became the chief U.S. distributors of Colombian cocaine, overseeing a pickup and delivery system that brought the drug into Florida by the tons, prosecutors said. Central to their operation, the officials said, were dozens of old friends and acquaintances from their Cuban-American boyhood who shared the wealth, and often, their passion for racing powerboats.

Boat racing, of course, was a perfect cover for a business that relied on those same fast boats to haul “product” in from the Bahamas. At the same time, Magluta and Falcon became competitive in a sport fueled by money. Three times in the mid-1980s Magluta won American Power Boat Assn. national titles. In 1986, Falcon won the Marathon Offshore Challenge in the Florida Keys. Both appeared on ESPN telecasts.

They also appeared frequently on drug agents’ radar screens. They were first arrested and convicted on minor drug charges in 1978. Free on appeal bonds, they were arrested again seven years later while hiding out in California. After giving police false names, they were released on bond and disappeared before police figured out who they were.

In 1988, Magluta was arrested in Miami after a former high school classmate recognized him in an office supply store. But days after being sent to jail on a fugitive warrant, he was released after someone, prosecutors believe, changed his records to show that he had already served 14 months.

While avoiding jail, Magluta and Falcon continued to run a hectic drug import business, witnesses have testified, that often seemed as absurdly haphazard as it was lucrative. Confessed smuggler Manuel Hernandez--nicknamed Manny Veneno, or Manny Poison--this week regaled jurors with stories of 1987 drug runs to the Bahamas plagued by pirates, lost and broken-down boats, and so much cash and cocaine that no one could keep track of it all.

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Although assets worth millions were seized when Magluta and Falcon were arrested in their respective homes in 1991, neither is apparently broke. Falcon’s lawyer is Albert J. Krieger, best-known for representing New York Mafia boss John Gotti, who is now behind bars. Magluta has two big-name lawyers: Boston’s Martin Weinberg and Miami’s Roy Black, who successfully defended William Kennedy Smith on rape charges in 1991.

The defense has admitted that Magluta and Falcon once were in the drug trade, but “they retired” 15 years ago, according to Black. That would leave “the boys” exempt from prosecution because of the statute of limitations, Black said.

Moreover, added Black, the witnesses against Willie and Sal are all untruthful drug smugglers trying to get out of jail themselves. “They are jumping on the bus, as they say, to get reduced sentences from the government,” he declared, adding that their statements often came after attending “seminars in prison where they educate each other on the facts of the case to get surface credibility.”

As for the prosecution’s allegations that Willie and Sal were “kings of cocaine,” Black responded: “Gross exaggeration.”

If convicted of all charges, Falcon and Magluta could be sentenced to life in prison. The trial is expected to run through February.


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