Heavy Traffic

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

"Because of what Julio [Correa] and Nicolás [Bergonzoli] did, it became en vogue," Perez says. "[And] I am sure that many people who collaborated with the United States did so because they knew that Carlos Castaño was backing them up."

Castaño and Perez became fast friends and confidants. "I got to know a man of integrity," Castaño explains, "a man who wanted to fight against drug trafficking, getting these countries [the U.S. and Colombia] back to normal. [His] interest went much further than simply the law. [He wanted] to contribute, to end these problems and avoid violence. Since then, we've had almost permanent relations via the Internet, and telephone."

Perez agrees. "I believe what we're doing is global," he says with pride. "In other words, you need to bring the war back here [to the United States], and when you do that you're more effective."

Surrounded by pigs and soldiers, Perez and Castaño talk strategy
Steven Dudley
Surrounded by pigs and soldiers, Perez and Castaño talk strategy
Perez moves from courtroom, to back room, to jail cell via telephone, airplane, and automobile
Jonathan Postal (top), Steven Dudley (bottom)
Perez moves from courtroom, to back room, to jail cell via telephone, airplane, and automobile

Perez claims he now works pro bono for the paramilitary leader. "I haven't earned a dime from him," he says.

The pipeline pumped cooperating drug traffickers through to U.S. jails for several years. But the honeymoon didn't last. DEA agents involved in some of the deals came under scrutiny when they expanded the program without authorization. Piza was murdered in 1999. Correa was assassinated during a trip to Colombia in 2001. Bergonzoli slipped into obscurity but quietly continued to provide information for the government from his prison cell. And in 2001 the U.S. State Department put Castaño's organization, the AUC, on its list of terrorists, which was followed by the indictment against Castaño and two others.

The only one who walked away unscathed was Perez.

Downward departures

Despite his connections to Castaño, Perez says he's still a progressive at heart. He is a self-described liberal Democrat. He's anti-Castro but also anti-embargo. He's an advocate of dialogue with the Cuban leadership -- a position he's been known to take in the company of even the most hard-line Cuban exiles. He battled his Cuban-born wife, Sonia, over the Elian Gonzalez case, arguing that the boy should be sent back to his homeland. In the meantime, he's solidified his position in the party. Perez has a photograph of himself with Bill Clinton on his desk in his office; he regularly receives solicitations for money from other high-powered members of the party and local judges facing elections. During Bob Graham's presidential bid, he received a flurry of phone messages from the senator, whom Perez calls a good friend. And Alex Penelas recently enlisted Perez to raise money for his U.S. Senate campaign.

Perez is not ashamed to admit that the political muscle he has at home has come from the wealth he's garnered abroad. Since the Piza, Correa, and Bergonzoli deals, Perez's business has been booming even though the feds aren't willing to give today's narcos the same sweet deals as the earlier crop of informants. Perez bought a used six-seat twin-engine Cessna 340 last year in order to easily visit his clients in Sebring, Tampa, and Orlando, and has hired a private investigator and several more attorneys.

His income and lifestyle do come under scrutiny. Perez was subpoenaed in 1998 for receiving an illicit payment from an associate of the infamous "cocaine cowboy," Willie Falcon. The subpoena was dropped, though, and Perez denies he had any relationship with Falcon. To avoid problems these days, Perez occasionally discusses unusual methods of payment with the U.S. Attorney's Office. For Perez, the government has greenlighted everything from a condo to an entire apartment building, both in Miami Beach. "The reality is that these guys aren't IBM executives," Perez says of his clients.

Perez spends weekends and holidays in county and federal jails talking to his clients. "You need to have an understanding for the client," he explains. "[And] the clients, deep inside, need to feel that you're making an effort." He sends his clients books and dines with relatives eager for reassurance about their confined loved ones. Perez's trustworthy image helps persuade these clients that they should betray their colleagues, their friends, and sometimes their own relatives.

Government statistics show that 95 percent of federal cases are resolved in the prosecution's favor, usually through a plea. "We spend a lot of time talking and teaching people about trials when the vast majority of these cases don't go to trial," Perez says. "The idea that people have of lawyers is what you see on TV. But the reality of our work is something else."

This work was on display recently in Orlando, where Perez talked with one of his clients in the Seminole County jail. The accused is a short, chubby Mexican in his thirties with dark skin and a thin mustache who authorities say had more than 100 kilos of marijuana in his living room. After going through jail security, Perez and the client meet in a small visiting room with telephones on both sides of a thick glass wall. Dressed in a red smock and plastic flip-flops, the Mexican leans against the wall, answering Perez's questions about his criminal record. The Mexican listens intently and squirms as Perez presses him on his past. He stares at the floor, then looks at Perez, then back at the floor again. Perez asks for names of his associates and their locations. The Mexican balks at this request but assures Perez that he can do a lot for los federales once he's back on the streets and has a car and some money. Perez tells him that it doesn't work that way, that choices are limited. The Mexican reassures Perez that he's going to cooperate, that he can't stay in jail, that he wasn't made for jail.

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