Falcon and Magluta

It was a day for redemption, a chance to win back a little respect after years of embarrassment. Everyone wanted to be in on the arrest of Willy and Sal, to be able to say they'd been there when the legend died. So on a rainy afternoon last October, as darkness fell over Sal Magluta's palatial La Gorce Island home in Miami Beach, dozens of federal, state, and local agents stood by as a specially trained, 25-man assault team from the U.S. Marshals Service stormed the house and captured the elusive Magluta. Five hours later, with the rain still pouring down, the same team of agents raided the Fort Lauderdale mansion of Willy Falcon.

Inside the houses, they found nearly one million dollars in cash and jewelry, a small amount of cocaine, and a kilo of gold. Chump change. Because in the age of the cocaine cowboy, Falcon and Magluta weren't just hired hands. They owned the ranch. From 1978 right up until the day the two were finally arrested, federal prosecutors say the Miami Senior High School dropouts acquired more than $2.1 billion in cash and assets by smuggling at least 75 tons of cocaine into the United States.

In their heyday, according to prosecutors, Augusto Falcon and Salvador Magluta controlled the largest cocaine smuggling organization on the East Coast and one of the top five in the world, a massive assemblage of planes and boats that funneled coke from the Colombian cartels in Medellin and Cali to the streets of Miami, New York, Washington, D.C., Charleston, South Carolina, and dozens of other cities across the United States.

Investigators say the partners laundered their profits through offshore bank accounts and dummy corporations established in the Bahamas, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Republic of Panama. The Panamanian corporations were set up in the early Eighties, with help from attorney Guillermo Endara. By the end of the decade Endara would be installed as the president of that nation after Manuel Noriega's regime was overthrown by invading U.S. troops because of Noriega's alleged involvement with drug traffickers.

The recent discovery of Endara's ties to Falcon and Magluta created a scandal in Panama and continues to be a source of humiliation for the United States government. Despite the fact that he acted as treasurer for some of them, Endara says he didn't know the companies he helped incorporate were in any way connected to money laundering and drug trafficking. He also claims he never met Falcon or Magluta, and says he didn't know the companies were established for their benefit. "I never knew them," Endara told U.S. News & World Report, which this past December offered the first detailed account of the Panamanian president's link to the two smugglers. "They never called our office."

At home in South Florida, prosecutors say, Falcon and Magluta hid millions of dollars in local banks they secretly controlled. Loans from those banks financed construction companies and management firms that built or bought millions of dollars worth of property across Dade County. Federal agents have seized houses in Coral Gables, Flagler Waterway Estates, and Doral Woods, penthouses on Brickell Key Drive, and a ranch in South Dade, as well as apartment complexes in Hialeah and Miami. Falcon and Magluta also owned a condominium in Vail; a farm, complete with airstrip, south of Lake Okeechobee; and real estate in the Florida Keys. (See accompanying sidebar, page 22.)

Falcon and Magluta constructed their empire, not while maintaining a low profile, but while basking in the public spotlight. Throughout the early and mid-Eighties, both men, and many others within their organization, were stars on the powerboat racing circuit - the preferred sport of drug smugglers. Falcon won the 1986 Offshore Challenge off the Florida Keys; Magluta won three national championships and was a member of the commission that oversees the American Power Boat Association.

Their ability to operate in plain view of local police and federal agents gave them the aura of modern-day Untouchables. "They were like gods in the doper community," says Sean Convoy, a supervisor for the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami. "All the other smugglers talked about how invincible they were. All you'd hear was, `Willy and Sal this' and `Willy and Sal that.' I don't think there was a police agency here that didn't have something going at some time to try and catch them."

Agents who took part in the October raids say that when the two men were finally arrested, they offered no resistance and seemed to be in a state of shock. Magluta was found, cold and shivering, hiding in the bushes in his yard. And standing in the rain outside his house, handcuffed, dripping wet in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, the five-foot-nine-inch Falcon no longer seemed so mythical, either. "You were number one," special agent Humberto Rapado, of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, whispered in Spanish as he led Falcon away, "but I got you now."

Time will tell whether the government will get to keep Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. Holding on to them has never been easy. In 1988, while he was a fugitive from a nine-year-old Miami drug conviction, Magluta bumped into a couple of detectives at a local office-supply store. Recognizing him, the cops carted him off to jail. Days later, however, he was inadvertently released after court records were mysteriously altered to say he had already served his full, fourteen-month sentence. Magluta remained free for another three years.

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