Awash in a Sea of Money

Billions in cash generated by the cocaine trade fueled Miami's economy

In 1982 Great American Bank of Dade County became the first financial institution to fall to Operation Greenback. Former Great American officials were charged with laundering some $96 million in drug profits. Kattan, already convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, was indicted in the Great American Bank case for his role in a scheme to wash drug money through cashiers' checks, wire accounts, and phony loans.

Also in 1982 The Economist of London noted that 44 American banks based in Miami received their charters allowing them to engage in international banking, compared to just ten in 1978. During the same period, 36 foreign banks opened branches here. Some banks were even bought with drug money.

Ray Corona was emblematic of the era. In 1985, when a grand jury accused the 37-year-old of helping smuggler José Antonio Fernandez buy a majority share in Sunshine State Bank in South Miami, Corona was chairman of the bank. He wore a Rolex and drove a Rolls-Royce, among several other luxury cars. He placed former Miami City Manager Howard Gary on the payroll as a bank director. Gary returned the favor, according to the Miami Herald, by giving him "a card identifying him as a special assistant to the city manager." He punched out a lawyer and hired thugs to shake down uncooperative clients. His bank allegedly laundered more than $100 million for Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. When indicted, Corona blamed Scarface for portraying Cubans as criminals. "It became fashionable to think that anyone who is young and Latin and out with a girl at night and is rich and has a Rolls-Royce has got to be a hood," he told the Herald.

Cases like those slowly began to sink in to the consciousness of the banking community. The heat drove the launderers from dumping raw cash to more sophisticated means, such as wire transfers and offshore banks. "Seven years after Kattan was arrested, all the guys like him were based in Colombia," McDonald says. "You had nickel-and-dime financiers here."

The Eighties was the time of high-profile defense attorneys like José Quiñon, Roy Black, and Al Krieger, among many others. "Everybody wants to climb the highest mountain there is," Quiñon said after being hired to represent Medellín cartel honcho Carlos Lehder Rivas at his federal cocaine conspiracy trial in 1987. "This is the type of case that represents to us the highest mountain, and we're going after it. This is our Everest."

In the Nineties, however, the feds began to prosecute defense attorneys such as Michael Abbell, Peter Baraban, William Moran, and Mel Kessler, who had gone too far over the line. This created a secondary market of defense attorneys representing defense attorneys, and has soured Miami criminal-defense lawyers on drug clients. This past August, Quiñon dropped out of a case representing Cali cartel founder Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela because he feared the federal government could charge him criminally for accepting legal fees from Orejuela, money the government considers to be drug proceeds. Thus Rodriguez-Orejuela will end up being represented by a lawyer appointed by a federal judge -- and paid for by the public.


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