Heavy Traffic

Miami attorney Joaquin Perez helps drug kingpins get minimum jail time, maximum profits, by cooperating with the feds

Perez did well by the small state, which gave him a plaque that still hangs in his office commending him for his "contribution to the Hispanic community and the poor of Rhode Island." When he arrived in Miami in the early Eighties, Perez became a prosecutor for the State Attorney's Office. Then he took a position as the manager at Legal Services in Liberty City. But by the end of his two-year stint there, his taste for civil service had soured. "I learned that the best way to help people is by not being nice to them," he says.

Perez's first foray into private practice came at a heady time. It was the 1980s, the era of "cocaine cowboys," cigarette boats, and souped-up Mercedes Benzes. For every "cowboy" there was also a "tonto" -- a high-priced, smartly dressed lawyer who defended his client with vigor. For a while, the so-called "White Powder Bar" seemed as untouchable as its clients. Peter Baraban alternated between two Rolls Royces and a pair of Palm Beach estates. Mel Kessler sped around in a flashy go-fast boat, and Joel Hirschhorn boasted about getting paid in bars of silver.

In those days defense attorneys took their cases to trial or they were considered traitors by their colleagues and the big narco bosses. It was a war, and war required artillery, not finesse. It also required sacrificial lambs. The underlings -- the money launderers, the drivers, the assassins, the couriers -- would be offered up in court in order to protect the bosses. The instructions from the big dealers to the lawyers were understood: Defend clients in front of a jury and a judge; no backroom deals allowed.

Perez's toughest challenge yet: Keeping Castaño alive
Jonathan Postal
Perez's toughest challenge yet: Keeping Castaño alive
Perez's transport in Colombia: Two unarmed handlers and a Toyota Land Cruiser that can withstand a bomb blast
Steven Dudley
Perez's transport in Colombia: Two unarmed handlers and a Toyota Land Cruiser that can withstand a bomb blast

But Perez took a different approach. Instead of leading his clients to the slaughter, he advised them to cooperate with authorities. "Flips" -- informants who trade names for shorter prison sentences -- quickly became the centerpiece of his practice. It didn't make him very popular. "Other lawyers were openly hostile," remembers Miami attorney Ruben Oliva, who, along with Perez, began negotiating deals for narcos in the late Eighties. "They called us 'cheese-eaters' and 'rats.'"

Yet Perez, Oliva, and a handful of others soon proved they were ahead of the game. "Twenty years ago, some lawyers would say 'I'm just a trial lawyer, I don't do flips,'" says José Quiñón, who defended Carlos Lehder in the late Eighties. "These days everybody does flips, except that Joaquin is one of the most successful at it."

To handle the informant trade, Perez has acquired deep knowledge of the drug world -- learning names, watching alliances, avoiding feuds. He also keeps a close eye on the U.S. government's war on drugs -- the penalties and the politics. Over the years, he has developed a studied approach to fostering deals between the government and his clients. It's Perez's job to make sure that everyone -- the client, the police, the federal agents, the prosecutors, and the judge -- walks away feeling like a winner.

Visiting the jungle lair of Carlos Castaño is not usually part of Perez's routine. A more typical morning for the 50-year-old begins at 9:00 at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building on NW Twelfth Street. The sixth-floor hallway is packed. Visitors in their Sunday best speak softly to one another; jail guards trade jibes; oblivious children play beneath the wooden benches; and well-dressed defense lawyers haggle with prosecutors.

Perez is the picture of tranquility. Dressed in a dark blue suit, he floats from one conversation to another. His lightly gelled hair remains in place, his shirt crisply starched. He doesn't have a pen or paper in his hands, nor does he carry a briefcase. It is as if Perez is hosting a party. He chats with an undercover police agent, then slips behind a closed door down the hall for another negotiation. When he finishes with that meeting, he walks into the jury room of one court. Twice he exits the jury room and goes back to the busy hallway to speak to a lawyer about another case. Then he finds the prosecutor for a third case and disappears into another back room.

After an hour of jumping from case to case, Perez heads to the federal courthouse. About half of Perez's clients -- Castaño included -- face federal charges. "Now we're going to the big leagues," he says. He crosses an enclosed, elevated hallway linking the court building with a structure that resembles an old warehouse. The windows, walls, and hallways are all painted white. "They call this the igloo," Perez explains.

The igloo got its name because no one seems to be able to control the air conditioning in this section of the federal court complex. Over the years, it has become the clearinghouse for the big narcos -- the place where prosecutors and federal agents try to elicit confessions and tale-telling; refusal can mean a life behind bars. It's the trade that every man wants to avoid: your dignity or your life. These days few defendants leave with their dignity intact. "It's not very glamorous," Perez says of the igloo, "but it's really where a lot of the action takes place."

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