In Pursuit of Willy and Sal

When infamous drug smugglers Falcon and Magluta won the first round, prosecutors vowed revenge. This time it's personal.

"Yes," Velasco replied. "He mentioned something like he was blackmailing somebody else."

"Did you hear any names?"
"He managed to say something about a falcon, but I did not know to whom he was referring."

Rosenbaum pointed out that the conversation took place eight years earlier. Was he sure he overheard the name Falcon? Velasco said he was.

"How many times did [Cadena] mention the name Falcon?" Rosenbaum asked.
"One time."
"You never heard the name before?"
"No."

Adding murder to the RICO charges that might be brought against Falcon and Magluta represents an enormous gamble for prosecutors. They risk committing the same mistake they made in the first Falcon and Magluta trial: relying on revulsive government informants. In this case, though, it may be an even bigger problem. In the 1996 trial, prosecutors used convicted drug dealers; this time they will be basing part of their case on the testimony of admitted killers. Defense attorneys will have a field day destroying the credibility of Mattos, Cadena, Tuberquia, Correa, and especially Velasco.

Witnesses, however, aren't the only danger for prosecutors. The defense may present an alternate theory as to who would want to kill Acosta, a theory that could prove embarrassing to the U.S. government. Acosta's death may not have been the result of an effort to aid Falcon and Magluta, the attorneys could argue, but rather to protect Guillermo Endara, whom the U.S. government installed as president of Panama after invading that country in December 1989.

Acosta helped launder Falcon and Magluta's drug profits by establishing shell corporations in Panama in the early and mid-Eighties. Assisting him in setting up those business entities was Endara, who at the time was merely an attorney in Panama City. Endara even acted as treasurer for some of the companies.

The irony is evident: The United States invades Panama to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega because of his ties to the Colombian cartels, and replaces him with a man who helped launder the fortunes of two of the biggest drug smugglers in U.S. history.

Endara's ties to Falcon and Magluta were first made public in 1991, though he denied knowing that the corporations were created to launder drug money. He also claimed he had neither met nor spoken with Falcon and Magluta. "I never knew them," Endara told U.S. News & World Report in December of that year. "They never called our office."

In February 1992, however, Manuel Noriega's attorney, Frank Rubino, told New Times that Endara had in fact met with Falcon and Magluta in the early Eighties and was well aware they were drug traffickers.

Det. Ron Ilhardt also touched on the Endara connection in his depositions. During his first session, on May 20, 1997, Ilhardt told Bruce Fleisher, defense attorney for getaway driver Gregorio Tuberquia, that in the early stages of the murder investigation he had interviewed one of Acosta's ex-wives, who claimed to be well aware of her former spouse's involvement with Falcon and Magluta.

"She told me who the middleman was," Ilhardt said.
"Who was that?" Fleisher asked.
"Well, I'm not going to say because the middleman is a very, very high-ranking political figure," Ilhardt explained. "In fact, the president of another country. And it's my understanding that the U.S. government may be working a case."

"You mean against him right now?"
"Yeah, and it might be an ongoing investigation. So I don't think I should divulge any information I may have in that area."

During his second deposition a few months later, on August 13, 1997, Ilhardt, who had retired from the force in 1995, was even more candid. "The president of Panama that the U.S. government put in was [Acosta's] tight man," he offered. "He was one of the original money launderers for these dope dealers, setting up offshore corporations and hiding the money and purchasing all kinds of real estate and stuff under these offshore corporations."

If motive becomes an issue in deciding Falcon and Magluta's culpability in Acosta's death, their defense attorneys might well ask jurors to consider who had the most to gain by his death: Falcon and Magluta, who were already fugitives? Or Guillermo Endara, who was in line to become president of Panama and who wanted to keep secret his ties to a pair of notorious drug traffickers? Defense attorneys could even argue that the cartel ordered Acosta killed not to help Falcon and Magluta but to protect Endara.

If prosecutors learned anything from their decade-long pursuit of Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, it's that during a trial, especially one in a Miami courtroom with a Miami jury, just about anything is possible.

Next week: Within days of losing the first Willy and Sal trial, prosecutors began investigating members of the jury, an investigation that culminated in the indictment of its foreman, Miguel Moya, on bribery charges. Prosecutors thought they had an airtight case, but this past month a jury failed to convict him. What went wrong

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