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
Magluta dropped out of high school; Valdes went on to the University of Miami and majored in accounting. He didn't graduate, but went to work for one of his instructors, Jack Snay, in an accounting firm Snay ran on the side. While working for Snay in the mid-Seventies, Valdes handled the accounts of several South American businesses in Miami. He also helped them form foreign corporations and open offshore bank accounts. "It became obvious pretty soon a lot of these people couldn't read and write," Valdes said.
And yet they were making a great deal of money, he noticed, more money than their businesses reasonably should.
When Valdes discovered the firms were fronts for Colombian drug smugglers, he testified, he wanted no part of it. But he came around. He explained his motivation in one word: "Greed." On his first deal, he said, he sold seventeen kilos of cocaine and made a profit of $70,000. "Well, from that first transaction, things just took off," he went on. "There was a lot of [cocaine] coming into Miami at that time that I was responsible for. And I started making a lot of money."
Valdes became part of a Medellin group that imported 600 to 700 kilos a month into Miami. "I was making anywhere between $750,000 and a million dollars a month," he said.
He was 21 years old.
The sudden change in lifestyle did not pass unnoticed. His boyhood friend Sal Magluta, who had been selling marijuana and cocaine by the ounce, began asking whether there was a place for him in Valdes's new world. One day in 1978, Valdes testified, he found himself stuck with 30 kilos from a deal that went sour. To make matters worse, he was booked to leave for a European vacation and couldn't depart until he'd unloaded the coke. He offered it to Magluta.
"At the beginning he didn't want to take 30 kilos," Valdes recalled. "I don't know -- maybe it was too much. It was a lot of responsibility at this time." But Valdes left the cocaine on consignment with Magluta and Falc centsn for one month anyway. When he returned from Europe, the pair handed him $1.3 million for the 30 kilos they'd sold and placed a standing order for more. After that, he added, there was never any talk about a deal being too large for Falc centsn and Magluta. "It was a very nice relationship," Valdes testified.
That relationship blossomed, and Valdes, Falc centsn, and Magluta tried to find a wholesale market cheaper than Colombia. Their search led them to Bolivia. Until that time, the Colombians had been responsible for actually getting the cocaine into the United States. But by buying the kilos in Bolivia and then making their own arrangements for flying the drugs into South Florida, the trio stood to make even more money.
In April 1979, Valdes told the jury, he was in Bolivia with Magluta, overseeing plans for their new operation. They had lined up the pilots and were going to make a maiden run: 200 kilos of cocaine. Normally he never would have traveled with the "product," Valdes said, but he had a meeting in Nicaragua and figured he could just hop a ride with the crew, who would drop him off in Nicaragua on a refueling stop. Magluta was to stay behind and continue to work on developing connections.
The plane developed engine trouble en route to Nicaragua and crash-landed in Panama. "We went down in a city called Puerto Armuelles [near the Costa Rican border]," Valdes told jurors. Amazingly no one was injured. Just as Valdes was thinking how lucky they were, the Panamanian military showed up and found the six suitcases filled with cocaine. He and the three others onboard were taken into custody, whereupon Valdes began trying to negotiate his way out.
"The attorney general came to see me," he testified. "I asked him how much it would cost me to get out of Panama, and how much [to] sell me the drugs back. He said the drugs had [already] been sold." The cost for getting Valdes and his crew out of Panama, though, would be $250,000. While arrangements were under way to get the money to Panama, Panamanian officials told Valdes they were going to "rough up" the group a little bit to "impress" the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which by that time had heard about the crash and sent its own agents to investigate.
"[The Panamanians] brought this guy over, trying to impress us," Valdes told the jury. "They stripped him naked on the floor and they proceeded to insert a broom in him, and blood splattered all over the place." It was at that point, Valdes said, that the pilots broke down, unaware their release was imminent and believing they were next in line for torture. "They told [the interrogators] that they didn't want to die, that they would cooperate, and that I had bribed the attorney general of Panama," Valdes said.
That admission, of course, had not been part of the script.
"They took us to the jail and they proceeded to put us in the worst dungeon I had ever seen, and I knew it was all over then," said Valdes. "We were tortured day and night. We were stripped naked, beat up, [I] had cattle prods applied to my body, and [was] doused with gasoline. I thought I was going to die. I was convinced I was going to die."