Marco Rubio's Ties to a Drug-Smuggling Brother-in-Law Were Closer Than Advertised

Rubio says he didn't know about his relative's drug dealing.
Rubio says he didn't know about his relative's drug dealing.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

In 1985, Marco Rubio spent part of his early summer living in a small house facing a tepid canal just north of Bird Road in West Kendall. Cages full of squawking macaws filled the acre yard. And a major drug ring stored kilos of cocaine in a spare bedroom, sliced it into bricks, and packed it inside cigarette cases to smuggle around the United States.

Florida's future junior senator was 14 years old when he lived for a short time in the house, which belonged to his brother-in-law, the coke ring's frontman. There's nothing necessarily wrong with having a drug-dealing relative. Ever since Univision outed his brother-in-law's ties to the drug trade in 2011, Rubio has steadfastly sworn that neither he nor his parents knew anything about the criminal gang.

But previously unreported testimony — taken from a review of more than 700 pages of federal court records — casts doubt on his story. The revelation comes as Rubio faces a tight reelection bid in which his honesty has become a major issue. The former Florida House speaker has already been caught lying about his family's past. And he recently spent months campaigning for president while promising voters he wouldn't run again for Senate, then reneged.

The testimony, part of a 1987 federal case against Rubio's brother-in law, makes clear the West Kendall residence, where Rubio also worked for months after moving out, was an important hub for the $75 million cocaine operation. Two law enforcement officials who worked on the Cocaine Cowboys-era case say they doubt anyone could have lived and worked there regularly without catching a hint of what was up.

"For anyone to argue that teens or adults living at this time in Miami didn't know their family members were in the coke business is total horseshit," says Michael Fisten, a former Miami-Dade homicide detective who's writing a book about the case. "My own brother was involved in the dope business, and I knew it immediately."

Larry Loveless, a former DEA agent who personally arrested Rubio's brother-in-law, concurs. "Is it possible? I suppose. But is it likely that you wouldn't notice anything? Definitely not."

Rubio's campaign did not respond to questions for this story.

The man at the center of the case, Rubio's relative, was the embodiment of Miami's '80s cocaine excess. Orlando Cicilia was a guajiro who immigrated to the Magic City in 1972 when he was 15 years old.

By then, Rubio's family members were already striving toward their American dream. The senator would later repeatedly describe how his parents had escaped Castro's revolution, but Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia proved that origin tale was a lie. Rubio's parents — Mario and Oriales — had actually come to Miami in 1956, nearly three years before Castro's forces swarmed Havana. In Miami, Mario found a job as a bartender; Marco was born in 1971.

Barbara Rubio, who is 12 years older than Marco, met Cicilia in high school. They dated, and when Marco's father got a job bartending in Las Vegas in 1979, Barbara stayed in Miami with her boyfriend.

The families soon became close. As Rubio writes in his memoir, An American Son, they returned for Christmas in 1983, and Cicilia hosted a farm-style Nochebuena with a lechón roasted over coals at his Kendall house. Rubio calls that holiday "my fondest childhood memory," writing that his "father had felt transported to his childhood."

When Rubio's parents decided to move the clan back to the Magic City two years later, they turned to Cicilia for a temporary place to stay.

It's not clear exactly how long Rubio lived at Cicilia's home, which property records locate at 3825 SW 132nd Ave. In his memoir, Rubio writes that he, his mother, and his younger sister, Veronica, moved back around June 1985. They stayed at Cicilia's house until July 4, when his dad bought a house in West Miami.

This is crystal clear: By the time they moved in with him, Cicilia had become a major player in a huge — and vicious — international drug ring. The gang began moving weed in the '70s but by the early '80s had become a big operator in Miami's booming coke trade. Their cover was the exotic animal business, and their jefe was Mario Tabraue, the son of a Bay of Pigs veteran, who later became infamous for letting spotted leopards roam free inside his palatial Coconut Grove estate.

Tabraue was a violent piece of work. In 1980, his crew murdered a federal agent, Larry Nash, and Tabraue tried to hack him to pieces with a machete before giving up and letting his cronies use a circular saw instead. He was also charged with ordering a brutal hit on his first wife, who was shot nine times. But he beat that case at trial.

"Mario was absolutely ruthless," says Fisten, who investigated the hit on Tabraue's wife. "He had hired killers working for him all over South Florida."

Rubio's brother-in-law met Tabraue in 1983 while shopping at the gang boss' cover business, a pet store. "He began as a customer, started getting to know Mario more and more, and developed into working into the business," testified James Ricky Brown, a former member of the gang.

Soon, Orlando Cicilia became the coke operation's frontman. If Tabraue was the terrifying Tony Montana, Cicilia was the nebbish businessman, more logistics guy than enforcer.

"Orlando was heavily involved in cocaine distribution," says Fisten, who describes him as the operation's number two man behind Tabraue. "His name never came up in any of the kidnappings, murders, or anything like that. He was kind of a wimpy character."

Cicilia set up his own front business at the house: an exotic bird breeding firm called World-Wide Pet Import & Export. He packed his yard with avian cages, but the birds were just cover.

One of the most compelling pieces of unreported testimony on Cicilia's operation comes from Randy Chatfield, a Fort Lauderdale resident whom Cicilia hired in spring of 1985 as a drug runner. Chatfield testified that Tabraue would tell Cicilia where shipments from Colombia were coming in and where they needed to go. The businessman would then make it happen. Birds were code words. A parakeet was a gram, a cockatiel was an ounce, and a macaw was a kilo.

Cicilia's house, surrounded by colorful birds, became a hub for huge cocaine shipments — and Rubio's brother-in-law routinely kept and cut the drugs inside the house, Chatfield said.

"Did you know where [Cicilia] kept his cocaine?" a prosecutor asked Chatfield.

"In his spare bedroom," he answered.

"What quantities would he keep in his spare bedroom?" he asked.

"A kilo, or two... 2.2 pounds," Chatfield answered.

The pair would take large hunks of the Colombian yeyo, slice it into smaller pieces, and hide it for shipment in cigarette cases, Chatfield said. "We would open the bottoms, take the cigarettes out, and then put the cocaine in and seal it back up," Chatfield testified.

What's more, Chatfield said Cicilia kept cocaine in his house between March 1985 until January 1986, when he moved the drugs to a secret compartment in a warehouse.

Chatfield isn't the only gang member who said Cicilia used his Kendall home for drug running. In March 1985, Cicilia invited over one of the cocaine runners who had just served a prison term — but hadn't snitched. "[Cicilia] wanted to commend me for not implicating others," the runner, named Jim Morical, testified.

Amid all of this cocaine running, Rubio and his family moved into the house. Even after they moved out July 4, 1985, the teenaged Rubio returned to the house every week. "Barbara and Orlando owned seven Samoyed dogs," Rubio writes in his memoir. "They paid me ten dollars a week for each dog I washed, and I used my earnings to buy tickets to all eight regular season [Dolphins] home games in 1985."

Tabraue and Cicilia's drug ring came tumbling down in a December 1987 federal sting called Operation Cobra. The way Rubio tells it, he and his family were totally blindsided.

"I was stunned by the news," Rubio writes in his memoir. "Like my parents, I had never suspected Orlando was involved in a criminal enterprise."

When Univision first reported on Cicilia's case five years ago, Rubio said the same thing — while furiously organizing a GOP boycott of the station's debates. The politician has pointed to his young age at the time, suggesting a teen could have easily missed hints of cocaine dealing.

But Fisten says teenagers of the era were well aware of Miami's booming cocaine scene. In fact, the hit man who killed Tabraue's wife was 16 years old.

Speaking in general about Miamians with relatives selling coke, Fisten says, "There's just no way you didn't know. The sudden wealth, the sudden distribution of money to other family members, the new lifestyle from someone who had no real job... And yet everyone tries to say, 'I didn't know he was in the dope business!'?"

In 1989, a jury convicted Tabraue, Cicilia, and five others. Tabraue got 100 years — but remarkably served only 14 before getting out in 2003 and reopening an exotic animal farm in the Redland.

Cicilia received a 35-year sentence but was also released early, in 2000. He's since gotten a real-estate license — in part thanks to Rubio, who sent the state a letter backing his brother-in-law's application when he was majority whip of Florida's House. Rubio has regularly had Cicilia onstage at his rallies as he rose from speaker of the house to U.S. senator and presidential candidate.

Cicilia's Kendall house, though, where Rubio spent so much time in 1985 — and where so many kilos of cocaine were chopped and stuffed into boxes for shipping around the country — has long since changed hands.

The feds seized it in 1987, calling it an illegal asset of a drug ring. But they never found the $15 million they say Cicilia made as profit off his operation.

So far, Cicilia's drug case hasn't had much political impact on Rubio. Univision's original scoop made barely a ripple. "The story generated almost no buzz," Roig-Franzia writes in his biography, The Rise of Marco Rubio. "There was so little attention that it was almost as if the report had never aired."

What did resonate was a fight afterward between the station and the senator. Rubio staffers accused Univision of offering to spike the story if he would agree to a sitdown on television. The Spanish-language station's execs denied it, but the allegations were enough to spark a GOP revolt against Univision.

Rubio's current campaign is different, though. Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy has hammered him for his repeated, emphatic promises not to run again for reelection before jumping back into the race anyway. Dems recently bought MarcoRubioForPresident.com to troll him with videos of his pledges, along with suggestions he'll just leave the Senate to run for president again in 2020.

Rubio has also taken a strong stand on drug sentencing, writing in a Washington Times op-ed during his presidential run that "reform should not begin with careless weakening of drug laws."

Polls show the race is a tossup.

So the new details of the case and allegations that he hasn't been totally truthful about what he and his family knew about his brother-in-law's crimes could have a substantial impact on the race.

"I was involved in many of the Cocaine Cowboys cases... so I have a really good feel for what was going on at the time," Fisten says. "My feeling whenever anyone says they didn't know what a close relative was doing is that they're lying."


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