After 26 Years on the Run, Cocaine Cowboy Gustavo Falcon Pleads Guilty

Gustavo Falcon, part of the largest cocaine-smuggling operation in Miami's history, had been on the run for 26 years before his capture last year in Orlando.
Gustavo Falcon, part of the largest cocaine-smuggling operation in Miami's history, had been on the run for 26 years before his capture last year in Orlando. Orange County Jail/HistoryMiami
The defendant had already pleaded guilty and a gaggle of reporters had shuffled out of the federal courthouse Thursday morning. But Judge Federico Moreno wasn't in any rush to leave, and neither were the half-dozen veteran prosecutors and defense attorneys. After all, this case had been more than two decades in the making, dating back to Miami's cocaine cowboy heyday.

"Then there was the Kramer case," Moreno reminisced, as he traded war stories with the lawyers for nearly 20 minutes after the hearing. "You had helicopters trying to get prisoners out of prison. It was a movie!"

The same could be said of Gustavo Falcon's wild ride, which came to an end in the same courtroom. Falcon was a player in the biggest cocaine crew based in Miami, the famed Los Muchachos operation that funneled $2 billion worth of yeyo into South Florida until it all blew up in 1991. While Gustavo's brother, Willy, and most of his cohorts spent decades in prison, Gustavo escaped and lived on the lam for 26 years.

But his remarkable run as a fugitive came to an end last April when U.S. Marshals found him and his wife living in Kissimmee under assumed names. He was arrested when he returned home from a bike ride.

Today's hearing filled in some blanks about Falcon's role in his brother's coke gang and about how he slipped away as the feds closed in. Gustavo, who is now 56, is six years younger than Willy, who started a Colombia-to-Miami cocaine pipeline in the early '80s with his high-school buddy Sal Magluda. The two would become known as "Los Muchachos" or simply "Willy and Sal."

By the late '80s, Willy and Sal were major players, banking millions every month and living flashy lives in beachfront mansions — and even bankrolling pro cigarette boat races. Gustavo was a quieter, behind-the-scenes operator, prosecutors say, who helped keep the books for his brother's sprawling criminal enterprise.

In his pleading today, Gustavo admitted to helping Pedro "Pegy" Rosello — a top cartel member and Gustavo's brother-in-law — set up a cocaine-running scheme in Southern California in 1986. When Pegy narrowly avoided arrest and returned to Miami, Gustavo helped him set up a stash house in Broward County to store huge cocaine shipments.

Willy and Sal's gang crashed to the ground in 1991 when the two kingpins and most of their lieutenants — including Gustavo — were rounded up in federal raids and charged in court. But after bonding out, prosecutors say, Gustavo and his wife quickly obtained fake papers — under the names "Luis Andre Rice" and "Maria Ava Rice" — and disappeared.

Willy and Sal were acquitted of all charges in a 1996 trial overseen by Judge Moreno — who later was called as a witness when prosecutors found that the drug lords had bought out the jury foreman and several jurors to ensure the verdict.

Prosecutors retried the pair in 2002 and nailed Willy with 20 years in a plea deal; Magluta got 195 years.

But Gustavo somehow remained hidden — until last April, when a Miami-Dade Police sketch artist helped identify him from a mug shot taken in Central Florida and U.S. Marshals tracked him to his home. He faces up to 20 years when he and his defense attorney, Howard Srebnick, report for sentencing April 11.

With close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, Gustavo Falcon agreed in a husky voice to tell prosecutors everything he knew about any remaining hidden money or assets tied to the drug gang that ruled Miami for decades.

Moreno was clearly excited to have the long-lost defendant facing justice in his courtroom again at last. When Srebnick asked for the sentencing to be moved to later in the morning, Moreno agreed with a smile.

"We've waited almost 27 years," he told the defense attorney. "What's another day or a few hours, right?"
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

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