By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Mario Gonzalez was confident he would never be caught. Indicted in 1989 on federal charges of drug trafficking and weapons violations, he knew the cops were looking for him. He'd even seen his own picture on television, where he was described as a violent fugitive. But the 28-year-old Gonzalez never worried; he seemed to have a talent for staying one step ahead of the law. He'd move from hotel to hotel in Miami, never lingering too long in one place. As a further precaution, he equipped his red Chevy Blazer with a high-intensity spotlight mounted on the rear. The light was connected to an extension cord that ran up to the driver's seat. In a pinch, Gonzalez could quickly plug it into the cigarette lighter. Anyone foolish enough to try following him would be temporarily blinded.
This past summer Gonzalez reportedly began to think about retiring from "the business," but for the time being, drug smuggling was still the most exciting and profitable occupation he knew. On July 24, using the name Jorge Perez, he checked into the Miami Princess Hotel off Le Jeune Road near Miami International Airport. The hotel, often favored as a rendezvous point by discreet lovers, features rooms with mirrored walls and elevated, heart-shaped bathtubs. Gonzalez's second-floor room even had its own stairwell down to a private, enclosed garage -- perfectly designed for shielding cars from snoopy investigators looking for cheating spouses, or in this case, deputy U.S. Marshals on the hunt for known fugitives.
On his third night at the Princess, something caused Gonzalez to become suspicious. It remains unclear how he may have learned that lawmen were nearby, but shortly after 3:00 a.m. on the morning of July 27, he awakened his female companion, and the couple headed downstairs to his waiting Blazer.
As the garage door swung open, Gonzalez floored the accelerator. Sure enough, police and federal agents were lying in wait. But Gonzalez's sudden departure caught them off guard. They quickly rushed to block all exits from the hotel. As Gonzalez raced wildly around the parking lot trying to escape, agents unleashed a wave of gunfire. The Blazer crashed through a chainlink gate, but the street ahead was barricaded. Back into the parking lot he charged, this time lying on the floor and steering blindly with his left hand so as to avoid the barrage of bullets coming from every direction. Gonzalez then rammed a pair of police cars by one of the exits and knocked them aside. Out of control and dragging a large chunk of chainlink fence, he smashed into a parked car before stranding himself on an oleander bush half a block from the hotel.
More than 130 bullets were fired in the melee, all by police and federal agents. The chassis of the Blazer was riddled with holes, all four tires were blown out, every window shattered. Even Gonzalez's prized rear spotlight took a hit. When officers came running, Gonzalez's female friend stepped from the car with a only few minor scratches caused by flying glass. Gonzalez himself ended up with just a couple of superficial gunshot wounds -- to his left arm and shoulder. Ever defiant, he boasted that he would have gotten away had his vehicle's drive shaft not broken.
As Gonzalez and the woman were taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital for treatment, federal officials began searching the Blazer. Under the passenger seat, in a briefcase, they made two sobering discoveries. The first was a pipe bomb packed with gunpowder and ball bearings. The second was not literally explosive, but it sent major shock waves through Miami's federal law enforcement community.
Along with the pipe bomb, agents found a series of enlarged photographs that had been shot a few weeks earlier. The photos documented a clandestine meeting of U.S. Marshals and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
At the time they were secretly photographed in a parking lot, the agents were preparing to conduct a surveillance operation, the nature of which authorities refuse to discuss. "It appears that the surveillance team was actually under surveillance," says one federal official familiar with the case. Was Gonzalez going to use the pictures -- which included detailed shots of the agents' cars -- in connection with the pipe bomb? Federal law enforcement authorities say they don't know, just as they don't know whether Gonzalez himself took the photos or received them from someone else.
It appears unlikely Gonzalez will have much to say about the subject. After his arrest, according to court documents, he told his jailers he would beat all charges, and in the meantime he intended to sit and wait. He boastfully compared himself to the plantados of Fidel Castro's prison system, political prisoners who could spend 30 years in jail and never break, never turn on their compatriots and friends.
Law enforcement sources say Gonzalez worked extensively with the now-legendary team as part of a relationship that dates back to at least 1985. After Falc centsn and Magluta were arrested in 1991, they were housed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in South Dade, where they met frequently with Gonzalez's brother, Augustin, who was being held there on unrelated charges. In addition, the sources hint darkly that other recent developments may link Gonzalez with Falc centsn and Magluta.