I want to be very wealthy, and I'll be glad to tell you when I've accomplished that goal.
John Ellis Bush, son of the president
The photograph is unexceptional, according to those who have inspected it, similar to pictures seen in the homes and offices of self-important people everywhere. An ambitious businessman is shown grasping the hand of a prominent political figure. The businessman is Leonel Martinez, well-known Miami home builder, convicted drug trafficker, and murder suspect. He is shaking hands with George Herbert Walker Bush, at the time vice president of the United States.
The picture of the vice president and the cocaine kingpin was discovered in one of twelve filing cabinets seized from Martinez's construction business in June 1989, when Martinez was arrested on drug charges by Metro-Dade police and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Investigators also found other photographs of Martinez with notable local figures, including one of Martinez with Metro Mayor Steve Clark, and another with State Attorney Janet Reno.
This past March Martinez pleaded guilty to federal narcotics charges. In a statement submitted to the court, he acknowledged his role in drug trafficking, admitting he'd imported more than 5500 pounds of cocaine and hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana into the United States between 1977 and 1987. Now serving a 23-year prison sentence, Martinez is cooperating with federal authorities in an ongoing narcotics investigation.
More a cultural artifact than a legal document, the photograph of George Bush and Leonel Martinez is a snapshot of America in the Eighties. The nouveau riche lawbreaker with diamond-encrusted Rolex shakes hands with the paragon of establishment American politics, the very man once charged with leading the fight against drugs in South Florida. The key to understanding that picture lies not in the sweeping tides of national affairs but rather in the backwaters of local politics. For Miami Republicans in the 1980s, those waters were dominated by a tall, boyishly handsome young man named John Ellis Bush. Jeb, as he is commonly known, is the second-oldest son of George Bush and likely a future candidate for national political office. If it weren't for Jeb, it's unlikely that Leonel Martinez would ever have found himself shaking hands with the vice president of the United States.
There is no evidence that George Bush or his son Jeb knew Leonel Martinez dealt in illegal drugs, according to senior law enforcement officials familiar with the Martinez case, and the photographs of Martinez with various political figures are not part of any ongoing investigation. It is not known whether George, Jeb, and Leonel were anything more than passing acquaintances. It is certain, however, that at the time the picture was taken, probably between 1984 and 1987, Leonel Martinez was known to the Bushes' political fund-raising organizations as an important source of support.
Between 1984 and 1987, Martinez and his wife Margarita donated at least $14,200 to political organizations controlled by the Bush family. Martinez gave to other political causes, too, though not as generously as to the Bushes. In 1986, for example, his Miami construction companies contributed $6000 to the successful gubernatorial campaign of Bob Martinez. After losing the governorship to Lawton Chiles this past November, Bob Martinez was appointed to a new job. President Bush, after consulting with his son Jeb, tapped the ex-governor to lead the National Office of Drug Control Policy. Bob Martinez did not respond to inquiries about the donations from Leonel Martinez, but if approved by the Senate during confirmation hearings that begin this week, he will be the first drug czar known to have enjoyed the financial support of a major drug trafficker.
During his years of political philanthropy, Leonel Martinez was a hot criminal suspect. He had been arrested three times; in two cases charges were dropped, the third resulted in a felony conviction for carrying a concealed weapon. He was being watched by the U.S. Customs Service. His finances were being probed by the Internal Revenue Service. The Drug Enforcement Agency mounted two separate investigations of him. A Swiss bank in the Bahamas had rejected him as an undesirable customer. And the Central Intelligence Agency, which was in a position to know about all this scrutiny, had developed ample evidence of drug trafficking by a faction of Nicaraguan contra supporters to which Martinez belonged.
It's safe to say that George Bush and his son Jeb were unaware of these inquiries. And in Miami, socially at least, Jeb certainly would not have been familiar with Martinez. Aside from their entrepreneurial ambition, the two men had little in common. Jeb is Ivy League, the tennis-playing son of the president of the United States, a young man described by one reporter as having been "born to lead." Martinez is a high school dropout, an exile from a small town in Cuba, a man who is, in the words of one cop who has spent many hours interviewing him, "a peasant who wanted to be high class."
If nothing else, Leonel Martinez's celebrity photo gallery illustrates that drug money speaks as loudly and clearly to ambitious American politicians as any other kind of money. With or without Jeb Bush's knowledge, what brought the two men together - financially if not photographically - was the political economy of cocaine in particular, and the fast money of democratic capitalism in general. Drugs mean money and money means success in politics. Money, in the form of campaign contributions, buys access. Access to elected officials more than occasionally facilitates the schemes of respectable criminals to defraud the government and evade the law. Political entrepreneurs like Jeb Bush sell access.
John Ellis Bush was born in Midland, Texas, on February 11, 1953. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, had just been elected U.S. Senator from Connecticut. His father, George Herbert Walker Bush, was an independent oil operator seeking to cash in on the Texas oil boom. The Bushes soon moved from Midland to Houston, where Jeb attended private schools and his father became a millionaire. In 1962 George Bush got his start in politics, when he became chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, and in 1966, when Jeb was thirteen, his father was elected to Congress and the family moved to Washington. As a high school sophomore, Jeb was sent to Phillips Academy, the exclusive boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, from which George had graduated 30 years earlier.
Friends from Andover recall Jeb Bush as a popular, bright, hard-working jock who excelled at tennis and squash. He took a semester abroad in Mexico to learn Spanish, and wound up in a small mountain town where he met a young woman named Columba Garnica. Jeb was smitten. In 1971 he graduated from Phillips Academy and went on to the University of Texas, where he played varsity tennis and graduated in three years with highest honors in Latin America studies.
Jeb married Columba in 1974 and took a job in Houston as a loan officer in the Latin American division of Texas Commerce Bank. He went on to serve as administrative assistant to the chairman of the board, and then in 1977 he was promoted to vice president of the bank's Venezuelan operation and transferred to Caracas. But he was growing tired of banking.
In May of 1979, Jeb took a leave of absence to work on his father's campaign for president. He worked as campaign manager for the Bush effort in Puerto Rico, where his fluency in Spanish and the access he had to monied Puerto Ricans helped his father win the primary handily. From there Jeb moved on to Miami for the Florida Republican presidential primary in March 1980. George Bush lost decisively to Ronald Reagan in Florida, and by May it was apparent that Reagan would clinch the GOP nomination. Jeb argued for fighting on; he was, in his father's words, "one of the last die-hards arguing in favor of an Alamo-style campaign finish, with guns blazing until the ammo ran out." The elder Bush, however, decided to withdraw from the race.
Jeb apparently liked what he saw of Miami. While campaigning in South Florida, he was befriended by Armando Codina, the self-made millionaire and real estate magnate who would eventually become Jeb's business partner. Codina later recounted to New Miami magazine a conversation he says he had with George Bush during the 1980 campaign, recalling that Bush told him Jeb was unhappy in Houston because of the way the Anglo community there reacted to his wife's Mexican heritage. George said Jeb was thinking about moving to Miami, where Anglo-Latin marriages are common.
Jeb Bush tells a different story about what brought him to Miami. He was especially close to his wife's family, he told a reporter for the Miami News in 1983. "On the personal side," Bush said, "my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were already living here." On the professional side, he said, he wanted to make money. "I want to be very wealthy," he told the News, "and I'll be glad to tell you when I've accomplished that goal." Bush seemed especially impressed with the commercial possibilities of Miami. "Any other city this size anywhere else in the U.S. has a big corporate base," he said. "But here...the business power is in the hands of a lot of entrepreneurs." One of the rising entrepreneurial stars of Miami in 1980 was Leonel Martinez.
Martinez was born in 1930 in the Cuban city of Campo Florido, outside Havana. His family was by no means wealthy; they supported themselves through work in the construction business; one man testified at Martinez's 1989 bond hearing that the two had worked together as shoeshine boys in Campo Florido. By the time Leonel was in his twenties, though, he was running a landfill company. Then Fidel Castro and the Communist Party came to power, and in 1962 Martinez fled to Miami, where he set up a clothing factory, employing his wife as a seamstress. The Martinezes lived modestly in a small duplex near Le Jeune Road and NW Seventh Street. Generally the business was profitable, although in 1978 one of his creditors sued him for nonpayment of a $46,000 loan.
There were early hints of Martinez's ambition, his temper, and his future livelihood. He had incorporated his modest clothing business under the grand name Mr. Martinez of Miami, Inc. In 1968 he pulled a gun on the husband of an employee who complained about a bounced payroll check. And in 1975 an informant told the Drug Enforcement Agency that Martinez had smuggled seven kilos of cocaine into Miami, hiding the drugs in Colombian artifacts.
Sometime later Martinez met Pedro Hernandez, a member of a well-established Colombian family who federal agents say was importing cocaine into the United States from Colombia via a commercial freight company called Air Condor, based in Cartagena. Hernandez paid Martinez $25,000 to pick up the cocaine, which arrived packed among aircraft parts, and to deliver it to Hernandez's Miami customers, twenty kilos at a time. Martinez later said he oversaw eight to ten such loads in the late Seventies, ranging from 15 to 400 kilos. Deputy Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol Wilkinson, who prosecuted the Martinez case, says there were twenty loads, and with cocaine selling in Miami for $55,000 per kilo at the time, she estimates Hernandez and Martinez grossed $200 million.
Martinez quickly moved from being Hernandez's courier to being his partner. In 1980 he bought himself a half-million-dollar house in the luxury Coral Gables waterfront development of Cocoplum, where so many drug traffickers have lived that local law enforcement officials have nicknamed the area "CocainePlum." Living next door to Martinez on Los Pinos Boulevard was Jose Antonio Fernandez, a major drug trafficker who won fame and a long jail term after he used his drug profits to purchase Sunshine State Bank.
Martinez sold his clothing company and started a construction business, retaining the name Mr. Martinez of Miami, and he built a two-million-dollar office building from which to oversee his drug and construction operations. He drove a gold Lincoln Town Car and sent his children to Gulliver Preparatory School on Kendall Drive, one of Miami's fanciest private schools.
Martinez also began to win respect within the Cuban exile community, with whom he shared a loathing of Fidel Castro and the common conviction that anyone who is not a Republican is a communist. Martinez backed up his views by helping to smuggle into the United States other refugees from Campo Florido; in time he became the self-styled leader of exiles from his hometown. In 1980, authorities later ascertained, he took his yacht, the 77-foot My Three Sons, to Costa Rica to pick up a group of twenty people fleeing Cuba. He brought them all back to Miami and even put one of them to work - in his drug business. Every summer he sponsored a retreat for ex-Campo Floridians living in Miami; hundreds of people attended, and Martinez picked up the tab. When he was finally arrested in 1989, 70 people appeared at his bond hearing to testify to his good name. Ten of them were prepared to forfeit their houses if he jumped bail and fled the country - which federal prosecutors said he was sure to do.
The early-Eighties drug trade was booming, and in 1981 Martinez began smuggling marijuana as well as cocaine. He was both bold and adept in his methods. In Colombia during March 1981, he arranged a shipment of 24,000 pounds of pot, taking the load to Everglades City and selling it all, netting $900,000. The next year he hired a local gas station owner named Alcides Cruz to transport marijuana from the Bahamas in the high-powered "go-fast" boats favored by smugglers of the day. Martinez and Cruz imported at least ten loads of 8000 pounds each in the early 1980s, switching to luxury yachts for transport when drug enforcement agents began hounding every go-fast boat on the water.
A reputation for violence became part of the Leonel Martinez mystique. In 1968 and again in 1980, he was arrested for aggravated assault. He has been charged with a 1978 double murder, and has also been implicated in the 1984 and 1987 killings of men who worked for him. Metro police investigating the 1978 case believe Martinez ordered the victims killed after they discovered his cocaine operation and tried to extort money from him. One member of Martinez's organization later told police why he wouldn't testify against Martinez: he had heard that the wife of a previous informant had found her husband's severed arm in her refrigerator.
Martinez was not at all shy about his success. When he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in 1981, he told his probation officer he was worth eight million dollars. Also in 1981, he began spending $100,000 per month to build a new waterfront house at 7020 Mira Flores Avenue in Cocoplum, a 13,000-square-foot, nine-bedroom, self-designed pleasure palace complete with a movie theater and a basement disco that could hold 100 people. His wife Margarita had her own sewing room, and out back was a swimming pool as well as a dock for his $1.3 million yacht. There was also a secret hideaway to which Martinez could escape and live for days if police ever came in search of him. He later said he had built the $2.2 million house so his kids would not have to seek entertainment away from home.
In December of 1983, Leonel Martinez moved into his dream house. He had come a long way from shining shoes in Campo Florido, Cuba.
That same month, December 1983, Jeb Bush launched his political career. Since moving to Miami, he had concentrated on three real estate operations he had launched with Armando Codina's help: Bush-Klein Realty, the Codina-Bush Group (initially called InterAmerican Investments), and Bush Realty. The ventures were quickly successful, and Jeb was urged to get into local politics. As his father had done 21 years earlier, Jeb sought the top office of his county's Republican Party. Although he was quoted in the Miami Herald at the time as saying he had made hundreds of phone calls to line up support for his election to chair the Dade GOP, the job was his for the asking.
For one thing, he was the son of Ronald Reagan's vice president, and Ronald Reagan was immensely popular here. Jeb was also ideally prepared to bridge the deep divisions between Anglos and Cubans in the local party. The Anglos tended to be genteel country-club types who had fled the cold winters up north. The Cubans were brash, middle-class strivers who had fled Castro's one-party state. Collectively the two branches held each other in veiled contempt.
Jeb Bush's personal style was deliberate, intense, and so sincere that even his political foes found him affable. He didn't seek to exploit his father's name and he worked hard. "He would go to any event," recalls Metro Commissioner Mary Collins, who served as Bush's vice chairman in the local Republican Party. "If there were three Republicans in a room together, he would go." Collins recalls seeing Jeb talking to neighborhood Republican groups on Saturday mornings, with his son in tow. During the 1984 presidential election, he debated Dade high school students about the virtues of Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale.
One of the difficulties Jeb Bush encountered, according to Collins, was that nobody wanted to disagree with the son of the vice president. "It was kind of funny," Collins says. "At Dade County committee meetings, Jeb would ask for discussion of a certain question and everybody would say, `Let's do it your way.' Everybody would defer to Jeb. It drove him crazy."
The truth was, a lot of people wanted to ingratiate themselves to Jeb Bush. One way to do that: money. And once Bush became chairman of Dade's GOP, the money began to roll in. In his first nine months at the helm, the party collected $176,000. Among the contributors was Leonel Martinez. On May 5, 1984, shortly after returning from a trip to Panama to deposit drug cash into one of his offshore accounts, Martinez made out a $200 check to the Dade County Republican Party.
Six weeks later Martinez had a close call with the law. On June 16, 1984, a Coast Guard patrol noticed that a yacht called the Seahorse was riding low in the water. When agents boarded the boat, they found 23,800 pounds of marijuana, and three men on board were arrested. The boat's ownership records showed that a Panamanian corporation had purchased the boat from Martinez. When U.S. Customs agents paid a visit to Martinez at his mansion in Cocoplum, he explained that he didn't know the people who had bought his boat, and he gave the agents a tour of his estate to prove he had nothing to hide. The agents were more impressed with the house than with the story, but although they probed further, they were unable to come up with anything that disproved Martinez's version. Frank Lino Diaz, the Miami lawyer who handled the sale of the boat - and a reputed money launderer - was later indicted and fled the country. The three men arrested on the boat were convicted but never squealed on Martinez. The investigation died.
On July 26, 1984, six weeks after the Seahorse seizure, Martinez and his wife made a second contribution to Jeb Bush's Dade County Republican Party. The amount: $2000.
At least two other unscrupulous local businessmen were making large contributions to the local Republican Party during 1984: Camilo Padreda, since convicted of fraud and more recently a star witness in the extortion trial of suspended Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez; and Miguel Recarey, Jr., one of the most extraordinary con men of our time. On September 13, 1984, Padreda, a well-known Miami developer, donated $1000 to the Dade County GOP. The same day Recarey, head of a health maintenance organization, gave $2000.
Camilo Padreda went on to become a political and business associate of Jeb Bush, an important player in Miami GOP circles, and a crook. A former counterintelligence officer for the corrupt regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, Padreda fled Castro and his homeland to begin anew in Miami, where he enjoyed a spectacular rise to prominence in both business and politics.
He first met Jeb Bush and his father in 1980, during George's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. His involvement with the local Republican Party was extensive, ranging from major fund raiser to office holder. (In 1988, after Jeb Bush stepped down as chairman, a new regime was installed, with Padreda serving as finance chairman.)
As a businessman Padreda specialized in projects that drew on loans and loan guarantees from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), often including low- or moderate-income housing. (His success as a developer led him to a term as president of the powerful Latin Builders Association.) One project, however, had nothing to do with residential construction.
With help from HUD, Padreda in 1984 began work on a nine-story office building at 5040 NW Seventh Street, just south of Miami International Airport near Blue Lagoon Lake. Despite warnings from the South Florida Regional Planning Council that the local market was glutted with unleased office space, HUD gave Padreda a $1.4 million grant for construction.
When the building was completed in May of 1986, Padreda was scrambling for tenants. He found one in Miguel Recarey, who leased two floors to house a portion of his health maintenance organization. But the market was not good and Padreda needed assistance. He turned to Jeb Bush, who became leasing agent for the building. Jeb and Padreda later told Newsday that Jeb's company, Bush Realty, earned no commissions because the firm never found a tenant for Padreda.
By the time he sought out Jeb Bush's help, Padreda was well established as a man whose professional ethics were scandalous. In sensational testimony earlier this month at the Raul Martinez trial, he revealed a seamy world of corrupt politics and fraudulent business practices throughout Dade County. He spoke from personal experience when he implicated Raul Martinez, former Miami Commissioner Demetrio Perez, and former Dade County Commissioner Jorge Valdes in various crimes, from bribery to extortion to vote selling. Federal prosecutors said last week that he has also provided information for other, ongoing local corruption investigations.
In 1982 Padreda was indicted in Texas for bank fraud at precisely the same time he says he was participating in a $150,000 extortion scheme perpetrated by Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. In 1985, he testified, he met with then-Miami Commissioner Demetrio Perez and attorney Alberto Cardenas (a leading Republican Party fund raiser and organizer) to arrange for Perez's vote to name Sergio Pereira as Miami city manager. Asking price: $50,000. Also in 1985 Padreda said he funneled $40,000 to then-Metro Commissioner Jorge Valdes for help with a zoning matter. In 1987 he was accused by HUD officials in Washington of a conflict of interest in a complicated building project involving a Miami nonprofit organization.
But his criminal activity did not prevent him from receiving in February 1987 an invitation to be one of 127 "Distinguished Presidential Appointees" to the White House's Conference for a Drug Free America, a panel that included members of Congress and cabinet officers Edwin Meese (attorney general) and William Bennett (secretary of education). Two months later the FBI began an investigation of Padreda's business practices.
Eventually the feds got Padreda for submitting to HUD phony cost statements arising from a $23 million housing project in Kendall called Casa del Lago. He pleaded guilty to fraud charges in September 1988 and agreed to cooperate with authorities in their investigation of Dade County corruption. Last week he was ordered to pay $85,000 in restitution to the federal government, fined $75,000, and sentenced to two months house arrest and two years probation. In addition, Padreda was ordered to head a panel of local citizens who will develop a plan to heal Miami's ethnic divisions.
The rise and fall of Miguel Recarey, Jr., president of International Medical Centers, is one of the most remarkable con-man tales of the 1980s, and Jeb Bush was only one of many people he duped. In the late 1970s, Recarey took over IMC, a small health-care organization in Miami. With lavish political contributions to Democrats and Republicans alike, Recarey won federal contracts to provide health care for Medicare patients. He launched a glitzy advertising campaign featuring comedian George Burns and country singer Barbara Mandrell, and he signed up South Florida Medicare patients by the thousands, making IMC one of the largest health-care providers in the nation. By the time the organization collapsed in mid-1987, IMC and Miguel Recarey were receiving a $30 million check from the federal government each month.
In fact, IMC was the biggest Medicare fraud scheme in American history. Local doctors and patients complained regularly about IMC to federal regulators, saying that conditions at some IMC clinics were abominable - one office in Little Haiti didn't even have sheets to drape gynecological patients. Low-level staffers in the Medicare program in Washington had long resisted accepting IMC as a Medicare provider but had been overruled by their more politically minded superiors.
While the public was receiving substandard care, Recarey was skimming untold millions of taxpayer dollars off the top. Federal investigators now believe Recarey used IMC to increase his personal net worth from $1 million to $100 million in about six years, even though he was widely known among law enforcement officials as a con man. He had been convicted of tax evasion, was suspected of hospital embezzlement, and was heard boasting about his Mafia connections. The chief security officer at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) wouldn't even let the department secretary sit near Recarey at political functions. In later inquiries, the top investigator for the General Accounting Office told Congress, "Just how someone like Miguel Recarey could have headed up and been chief executive officer of the largest [health maintenance organization] in the United States...is astounding." But Recarey's lavish contributions to politicians of both parties won him powerful allies - among them Jeb Bush.
By 1984 the accumulated complaints against IMC finally prompted federal investigators to begin a critical examination of Recarey's health maintenance organization. Of particular concern was the fact that a high percentage of the plan's members were on Medicare. With these patients came a steady stream of Medicare benefit payments, made directly to IMC. To discourage profiteers from entering the health-care business simply to receive Medicare money, the federal government had limited the maximum number of any HMO's Medicare clients to 50 percent of the total number of patients served. Recarey had to secure an exemption from what is known as the "50-50" regulation or IMC would be suspended from the Medicare rolls, and an extremely lucrative business would collapse.
Recarey turned to Jeb Bush for help, but first he offered his own form of assistance: in September of 1984, the Dade County GOP received a $2000 contribution from IMC.
Two months later, in November, Jeb Bush placed at least two phone calls to senior officials at the federal Department of Health and Human Services on Recarey's behalf. He called the Secretary of HHS, Margaret Heckler, who had previously expressed to aides her concerns about Recarey. He also called C. McClain Haddow, Heckler's chief of staff, who later told Newsday that the vice president's son urged his office to discount "rumors that were floating around concerning Mr. Recarey." Jeb reportedly told Haddow that Recarey was "a good community citizen and a good supporter of the Republican Party." Heckler's office granted Recarey the waiver he needed.
Jeb later told reporters that he didn't recall the conversations with Heckler or Haddow, though he remembered calling another top HHS official on IMC's behalf. He said later that he was simply trying to ensure Recarey received a fair hearing in Washington. He succeeded. According to the sworn congressional testimony of HHS officials, Jeb's phone calls were influential, if not decisive, in keeping Recarey's fraudulent operation going for two more years. During those two years, 1985 and 1986, Recarey and his associates gave more than $25,000 to George Bush's political action committees. And in 1986 Recarey hired Jeb Bush to find new corporate headquarters for IMC. Although Jeb failed in that task, he received $75,000 in fees from Recarey anyway.
Recarey was indicted in April 1987 and again in October 1987 on racketeering and wiretapping charges. He fled to Caracas, Venezuela, where he lived openly in a luxury suburb called El Llanito. More recently he is rumored to have left his wife and moved to Spain, and one Capitol Hill source familiar with the IMC case believes Recarey is also under investigation for drug trafficking.
Leonel Martinez was no smooth talker like Miguel Recarey, nor was he a Republican Party insider like Camilo Padreda. He was an audacious and skillful smuggler who in almost 30 years in the United States learned only the most rudimentary English. One police officer who saw him at a political fund raiser says Martinez sat quietly at his table with his wife and did not talk to other guests. Never one to ingratiate himself to others, he nonetheless demanded respect, and as he grew more respected, he became more demanding.
In December 1984, a pilot who worked for Martinez confronted him outside his office at 85 Grand Canal Drive in West Dade, demanding he settle a $4000 debt. Martinez first told his accountant to pay the pilot, then moments later, federal prosecutors say, he ordered his underlings to kill the man. The pilot was bludgeoned to death the same day, his body stuffed into the trunk of a car. According to one informant, when Martinez was asked by his associates how a man of his stature could allow someone to speak to him so disrespectfully, he hesitated for a moment, then said, "Boys, very few people talk to me like that, and as for that particular individual, there are ants crawling out of his mouth now."
Martinez was a man of stature in Miami. Not only did he contribute to Jeb Bush's Republican Party, he was also on friendly terms with some of the biggest bankers in town. And he associated with Eden Pastora, a leader of the contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua. The charismatic Pastora, who broke with the Sandinista leadership after the 1979 revolution, was a hero to anti-communist Latins in Miami, and a favorite of Reagan administration policymakers in Washington.
Martinez first met Pastora in 1984 in Miami and reportedly told him, "We will help you liberate Nicaragua and then you will help us liberate Cuba." In April 1985, Martinez sponsored a fund-raising event for Pastora, collecting hundreds of pledges. Alcides Cruz, Martinez's long-time partner in drug trafficking, has told investigators that he and Martinez arranged for Pastora to receive two helicopters, military clothing, arms, and ammunition.
It was at this time that Martinez's drug trafficking may well have come to the attention of the CIA. Alan Fiers, a senior CIA official, later testified in a closed session before Congress that "we knew that everybody around Pastora was involved in cocaine. His staff and friends [word deleted], they were involved in drug smuggling."
Pastora's friend Martinez was certainly involved in drug smuggling. In July 1985, he transported 440 kilos of cocaine through the Bahamas. By autumn he was attempting to import large cocaine shipments into Miami every few weeks. In September, when notorious Bahamian pirate Nick Stuart hijacked one of Martinez's 375-kilo shipments, he paid a $300,000 ransom to recover the load. In October he successfully imported another 400 kilos.
In late October, Martinez transported a shipment of 407 kilos for Colombian drug dealer Margarita Escobar, purported to be a relative of cocaine billionaire Pablo Escobar. After Bahamian police seized the twelve duffel bags of cocaine in Freeport, Escobar, known as "La Doctora" because of her advanced university degree, paid a visit to Leonel's office on Grand Canal Drive and demanded $750,000. If he didn't pay, she said, she would kill him. Martinez offered ten condominiums as payment, but La Doctora said no. Then, according to informants who were at the meeting, Martinez declared, "You can kill me or you can wait." La Doctora replied that she expected to be paid, and returned to Colombia. ("It was a typical business meeting in Miami," quips federal prosecutor Carol Wilkinson.)
Martinez set about collecting Escobar's cash, but he wasn't so strapped that he couldn't afford to continue his political largesse. On December 5, 1985, he made his biggest political contribution to date: a check for $5000, the maximum allowed by law, to a political action committee called the Fund for America's Future, which had been established to lay the groundwork for George Bush's 1988 presidential candidacy and was designed to tap Bush's most fervent supporters. Martinez paid off his debt to La Doctora, and in February 1986, he imported another 375 kilos of cocaine.
He also continued to have close calls with the law. In 1985 the Drug Enforcement Agency had developed an informant in Martinez's organization who tried to set up a sting operation in which the DEA would sell Martinez a load of marijuana. Martinez backed out of the deal.
In July of 1985, U.S. Customs agents seized a boat carrying 20,000 pounds of marijuana off the coast of Louisiana. The boat had belonged to Leonel Martinez, but with the help of Jorge Martinez, president of Hemisphere Bank, he had sold it to a fellow smuggler and used the transaction to launder some of his drug profits. Customs agents were unable to trace ownership of the boat back to Leonel Martinez.
As early as 1984, the Internal Revenue Service in Miami had opened an inquiry into Martinez's finances. The records of his construction company were inspected and subpoenas were issued for his bank records, but IRS agents told other law enforcement officials they didn't have solid proof of wrongdoing and couldn't press charges.
In June of 1986, Martinez himself was stopped by Customs. He had gone to the Bahamas on his yacht to oversee a shipment of 325 kilos of cocaine. Fortunately for Martinez, the deal fell through. As he was returning to Miami, Customs agents boarded his boat. They encountered Martinez, his nephew Julio Rodriguez, his partner in cocaine Pedro Hernandez, and one other man. There were no drugs on board, but there were three new Uzi submachine guns. Martinez's nephew said he had found the guns in a supermarket and that he'd brought them aboard without permission. No one was arrested.
On July 24, 1986, the U.S. State Department grudgingly acknowledged there was some truth to allegations that contra supporters were involved in drug trafficking. "The available evidence," the State Department said, "points to involvement with drug traffickers by a limited number of persons having various kinds of affiliations with, or political sympathies for, the resistance groups." On that same day, Leonel Martinez, enthusiastic contra supporter and energetic drug trafficker, wrote another $5000 check to George Bush's Fund for America's Future.
Less than three months later, on October 9, 1986, Vice President Bush came to town to stump for gubernatorial hopeful Bob Martinez. One thousand people jammed the Omni International Hotel to hear Bush and contribute money to the future governor's political war chest. A record $500,000 was raised, and Leonel Martinez again did his part. According to state campaign finance records, he wrote three checks, for a total of $6000.
Why would Leonel Martinez, an active drug trafficker, give $16,000 to GOP causes in less than a year? Ron Dresnick, defense attorney for the Martinez family, believes his client acted out of sincere conviction. "He has an almost religious belief in Republicanism," Dresnick says. But one law enforcement source who worked on the case is skeptical of Martinez's idealism. "Leonel Martinez didn't give anybody a dime," he says, "unless he thought there was a dollar coming back to Leonel Martinez somewhere down the line."
By the end of 1986, Martinez was the epitome of respectability, at least among Miami Republicans. He received a Christmas card from George and Barbara Bush. He was launching his most ambitious venture in the construction business, a West Dade housing development called Leomar Homes. (He had purchased land for the project, at NW Sixth Street and 132nd Avenue, in a complicated land deal that involved some of the leading bankers in town, including Capital Bank president Abel Holtz.) His long-time real estate lawyer, Victor De Yurre, was preparing to run for a seat on the Miami City Commission. (According to law enforcement sources, De Yurre, who was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Martinez probe, remains a subject of an ongoing investigation that grew out of the Martinez case.) In February 1987, Martinez was listed as honorary co-chairman of the Dade County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner, whose keynote speaker was Vice President George Bush. As honorary co-chairman, Martinez would have been entitled to attend a private reception for the vice president, according to one former party official. It is not known if Martinez attended the event.
Clearly Martinez had arrived, but among his social circle, there was speculation about the true source of his wealth. These stories reached Martinez's oldest son, Leonel Jr. According to one law enforcement source, the son once asked his father if he were involved in drugs. "Nunca," Martinez answered. Never.
In December 1986, governor-elect Bob Martinez appointed Jeb Bush to the position of state secretary of commerce, which gave Jeb the opportunity to promote Florida in the press and to travel, meeting with foreign investors. It also took him away from Miami, where reporters were asking some uncomfortable questions about his role in the unfolding Iran-contra scandal. In 1985 and 1986, Jeb had been involved in raising money and forging political support for the contras in Miami. In January 1985, he met briefly with Felix Rodriguez, the former CIA operative who served as the chief officer in Lt. Col. Oliver North's illegal operation to supply arms to the contras. The next month, the Miami Herald reported, a Guatemalan politician asked Jeb how he could supply medical help to the contras, and Jeb referred him to North.
When the Iran-contra scandal began to break in October 1986, the CBS Evening News and the Herald quoted unnamed officials as saying that Jeb had served as his father's chief point of contact with the contra rebels. Jeb's denials were narrow. He did not deny being his father's liaison to the contras, only that he had not participated "directly" in the illegal contra resupply effort directed from the White House. And, he added, he didn't think there was anything illegal about Oliver North's operation.
If Jeb Bush was wrong in his judgment of Oliver North, his judgment of Leonel Martinez was at least as misguided. At his moment of greatest respectability, Martinez made the misstep that eventually led to his downfall, an error that had nothing to do with drug smuggling, murder, or international arms deals. In late 1986 Martinez had begun construction at his 162-acre Leomar Homes site in West Dade without having obtained all the required permits from the county. Coincidentally, Metro-Dade cops were conducting a probe of kickbacks to building inspectors at the time. Martinez offered two bribes - of $400 and $500 - to an undercover agent posing as an inspector, in exchange for overlooking a lack of proper building permits at Leomar Homes. In March 1987, Martinez, along with eleven other local builders, was arrested and charged.
"I took one look at the guy," says a Metro-Dade police officer who worked on the bribery probe, "and I said, `This guy is a doper.'"
The lead detective in the bribery sting was Metro-Dade organized crime investigator Anthony Kost, who pulled together the files on Martinez that had been developed by the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and U.S. Customs. He then persuaded Metro police to open a drug investigation of Martinez. As more evidence developed, the DEA actively joined the probe.
Meanwhile Martinez continued his political philanthropy. In March of 1987, he gave $1000 to Victor De Yurre's campaign for Miami City Commission. In September of that same year he made his first contribution to a Democrat, U.S. Senate candidate Bill Gunter, who received $3000. And on October 21 Martinez and his wife donated $2000 to the Bush for President campaign committee.
In September 1987, Martinez pleaded guilty to bribing a building inspector and was fined $2600 and put on probation. He said his generosity had been misinterpreted. "I used to give to the Police Benevolent Association, to the fire department, to the politicians," he told a reporter. "I've stopped all that. If they don't trust my gifts in one way, I won't give to any of them. At least I'm saving a lot of money."
Martinez, however, didn't stop giving entirely. In April 1988, he contributed $1000 to Metro Mayor Steve Clark's re-election campaign. Clark returned the favor several months later by proclaiming December 10, 1988 to be "Leonel Martinez Day," citing Martinez for his "fantastic accomplishments" and for supporting "many worthwhile civic, social, patriotic, and cultural activities." (County commissioners had earlier renamed a portion of 132nd Avenue as Leomar Boulevard.)
By that time, Martinez's name, if not his face, was well known in local Republican circles. "He would always buy a table at our fund raisers," says one former employee of the Dade GOP. "It would be empty but everybody knew of him."
Leonel Martinez's success in presenting himself to the Bush family and the local political elite as a legitimate businessman is not surprising, according to law enforcement officials and political observers. Under current campaign-finance laws, they note, it is not necessary or practical to check the background of contributors. And besides, Martinez certainly bore the appearance of a bona fide businessman: in 1988 he was the eleventh largest builder of homes in Dade County, with $11.2 million in sales.
Thus, in March of 1989, as at least five of his close associates were cooperating with law enforcement authorities and federal prosecutors were preparing a drug indictment aimed at him, the Republican National Senatorial Committee was inviting Martinez to join the "Inner Circle" of major party donors. He received an invitation to attend the committee's annual spring fund-raising dinner in Washington, D.C., and to meet with key senators. He contributed $1000 to the committee but did not attend the event, according to a GOP spokesman.
Three months later, in June, only days after his membership application had been accepted by Miami's Latin Builders Association, Leonel Martinez was arrested after accepting delivery of 300 kilos of cocaine from an undercover agent for the DEA.
The photograph of George Bush and Leonel Martinez is not a subject local Republicans are eager to discuss. President Bush was unavailable for comment. His son Jeb declined to be interviewed for this article and did not respond to written inquiries about Leonel Martinez. Bob Martinez, the Florida ex-governor who faces Senate confirmation hearings this week as the so-called drug czar, did not respond to questions about the $6000 his campaign was given by Leonel Martinez. Even after Martinez was exposed and convicted of narcotics trafficking, neither the George Bush nor the Bob Martinez political action committees thought it appropriate to return the $20,200 in drug-tainted contributions they had received. On the other hand, the Republican National Senatorial Committee, when informed recently of Leonel Martinez's felony conviction, promised that his $1000 contribution would promptly be returned.
A former Miami federal prosecutor and Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says Jeb Bush would never take any action on Martinez's behalf and it would be "a cheap shot" and "innuendo" to dredge up the issue of Martinez's contributions to Bush organizations. One shrewd old GOP fund raiser denies knowing Martinez at all. "What did you say his name was?" the man inquired. "Efrain Martinez?"
Tom Cash, the veteran agent in charge of the DEA's Miami office, says he believes there are other Leonel Martinezes at work in the American political system. "Down in Latin America we call it corruption. Up here we call it political action committees. But it's the same thing here or there," Cash says, emphasizing that he is not speaking of any Miami political figure in particular. "At the top of the drug business, the politician-lawyer-banker circle is always seen. That's how you know you're at the top."
Politically speaking, Jeb Bush is already very near the top. He is frequently mentioned as a candidate for Congress or the Senate. Phil Hamersmith, a local Democratic consultant, calls him "a formidable candidate for any office he chooses to seek. He has no negative baggage." But a law enforcement official, who is experienced in drug and organized crime investigations, is less impressed. "When I see the kind of people who Jeb Bush hangs out with," he says, "I can't decide if he is very naive or very cynical."
Maybe Jeb Bush is just realistic about how to make money and friends in America. At a pretrial detention hearing for Leonel Martinez, prosecutor Carol Wilkinson said this about the man she had indicted: "He duped so many people in this community, it's impossible to name [them].... Now, maybe some of those people shouldn't have been fooled. Maybe it's an evil in our community that we live with from day to day.... If you want to make money in the Southern District of Florida, what you do is, you see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil."
When Jeb Bush accepts money from his political allies, he sees no evil.
A different version of this article appears in the March edition of Spin magazine.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.