Here's Where You Can Learn Everything There Is to Know About Willy & Sal

Artwork courtesy of Netflix
The recent Netflix release of Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami, Billy Corben's riveting chronicle of the strange-but-true exploits, excesses, and ultimate downfall of local drug kingpins Augusto Falcon and Salvador Magluta — AKA Willy and Sal — inspired us at New Times to bury our noses in our story archive and inhale deeply of the intoxicating wealth that lies within.

Colorful coke-snorting vernacular aside, the 1990s was a heady time to be a New Times reader — or, for that matter, a New Times writer.

As Corben's Rakontur partner Alfred Spellman said during a roundtable conversation last month, "Billy and I graduated high school in 1996, and this was the era of Miami New Times with a murderer's row of alt-weekly journalists in Miami, like Jim DeFede. When Jim's coverage of Willy and Sal came out, I was in eighth and ninth grade. I'd go to the New Times box every week."

Added Corben of the pair's initial — and ongoing — aspirations as filmmakers: "We wanted to do in nonfiction filmmaking what New Times was doing, what [Miami Herald columnist] Carl Hiaasen was doing, and what [talk-radio icon] Neil Rogers was doing."

When it came to what New Times was doing during the '90s, a significant chunk of it was composed of Jim DeFede's coverage of Willy and Sal. All told, over the course of the decade, DeFede wrote ten in-depth dispatches about the federal government's dogged pursuit of the pair known around town as "Los Muchachos" or "The Boys" — two Miami Senior High School dropouts who grew up to head what was said to be the most lucrative cocaine empire in South Florida.

In fact, DeFede's reportage and DeFede himself are front and center throughout Rakontur's Kings of Miami, because the stories themselves constitute a narrative of the bizarre, only-in-Miami true-crime tale. And reading DeFede’s stories about the case three decades on, it's easy to see why they captivated Spellman and Corben as teens.

To that end, we're dusting off those old tales and presenting them anew. Here they are, in chronological order:

Willy & Sal, Episode 1: The Rise of Cocaine Cowboys Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta

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Cover of the February 12, 1992, issue of Miami New Times
Miami New Times
Originally published in the February 12, 1992, issue of New Times and titled “Willy & Sal,” this longform feature covered the arrests of the alleged cocaine cowboys and provides a detailed account of the decade-long chase that led to their apprehension.

Writes DeFede: Falcon and Magluta constructed their empire, not while maintaining a low profile, but while basking in the public spotlight. Throughout the early and mid-Eighties, both men, and many others within their organization, were stars on the powerboat racing circuit — the preferred sport of drug smugglers. Falcon won the 1986 Offshore Challenge off the Florida Keys; Magluta won three national championships and was a member of the commission that oversees the American Power Boat Association.

Their ability to operate in plain view of local police and federal agents gave them the aura of modern-day Untouchables. "They were like gods in the doper community," says Sean Convoy, a supervisor for the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami. "All the other smugglers talked about how invincible they were. All you'd hear was, `Willy and Sal this' and `Willy and Sal that.' I don't think there was a police agency here that didn't have something going at some time to try and catch them."

Willy & Sal, Episode 2: Person to Person From Willy & Sal

In this news story, originally published in our March 11, 1992, issue, DeFede recounts an incident in which Falcon and Magluta were placed in "administrative detention" and locked in their respective quarters for 23 hours each day. Guards at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in southwest Miami-Dade had found a cell phone hidden near where the inmates were being held while awaiting trial.

Writes DeFede: During a routine search at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in early January, guards discovered a cellular phone hidden in a cell on the same floor where Falcon and Magluta were being housed. "We have information to believe they were the ones for whom the phone was brought in," says Dena Davion, a spokeswoman for the federal jail in southwest Dade. At the prisoners' request, says Davion, the phone was smuggled into the facility by a jail employee, who admitted he was paid $800. The employee, whom Davion says is not a guard but would not otherwise identify, has been fired but is cooperating with authorities.

Willy & Sal, Episode 3: The Further Adventures of Willy & Sal

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Cover of the November 10, 1993, issue of Miami New Times
Miami New Times photo
The second of Jim DeFede’s longform stories about the case, originally published in the paper's November 10, 1993, issue, covers the period following the cocaine cowboys' arrests and incarceration in late 1991, as federal prosecutors prepared to bring them to trial.

Writes DeFede: Many federal law enforcement officials based in Miami are unusually edgy these days. The euphoria that followed the capture of Falcon and Magluta — after nearly two decades of brazen drug trafficking and bungled efforts to halt it — quickly dissipated as key witnesses in the case began getting shot and killed with alarming regularity. And while the murders have made headlines, many more anxiety-producing incidents have occurred behind the scenes, many of them hidden from public view by a law enforcement community that has grown exceedingly wary: Death threats targeting federal agents, pervasive surveillance by private investigators known and unknown, unauthorized electronic retrieval of confidential information, blatant breaches of security at local jail facilities.

Willy & Sal, Episode 4: The Trial of Willy & Sal

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Cover of the December 14, 1995, issue of Miami New Times
Miami New Times illustration by Robert Andrew Parker
This is the third of Jim DeFede’s longform stories about the case, originally published in New Times' December 14, 1995, issue. In order to chronicle the first trial of Falcon and Magluta, DeFede sat through months of testimony, distilling it into a too-crazy-to-be-true — but true nonetheless — narrative.

He writes: Falcon and Magluta certainly don't look like they did in the pictures the public has seen sporadically in newspapers and on television since their October 1991 arrest. Those were file photos from better days, when the two were world-champion powerboat racers, cocky and self-assured, literally speeding through life at more than 100 mph. Now they are facing two dozen federal charges, for alleged offenses ranging from the importation of cocaine to operating a continuing criminal enterprise, which prosecutors claim was worth more than two billion dollars. A conviction on the majority of the charges would almost certainly result in their spending the rest of their lives in prison.

Willy & Sal, Episode 5: The Impossible Victory

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Cover of the February 29, 1996, issue of Miami New Times (Roy Black, standing; Martin Weinberg and Albert Krieger, seated)
Miami New Times photo by Steve Satterwhite
The fourth of DeFede’s longform stories about the case, originally published in the paper's February 29, 1996, issue, picks up as the jury returns to the courtroom after deliberating for only three days — and, at one point late in those deliberations, telling the judge they were deadlocked. They proceed to render a stunning verdict: Not guilty on all counts.

Writes DeFede: More than a week after the verdicts were rendered, the shock and amazement linger. The government made a staggering investment of human and financial resources to develop this case. Agents were drawn from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Marshal's Office, and U.S. Customs, as well as state and local police agencies from Miami to Los Angeles. Information was gathered from informants and sources in at least half a dozen different countries. It was the largest drug-trafficking case ever to be lost by prosecutors in the state of Florida, and it may well be the biggest narcotics case ever lost in the United States. "A dark moment," U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey said of the defeat.
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Jim DeFede, Billy Corben, and Alfred Spellman
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg

Willy & Sal, Episode 6: The Last Dance

This is a column DeFede wrote that was originally published in the paper's April 24, 1997, issue. It begins on February 6 of that year, when Sal Magluta went on the lam in the middle of his federal passport-fraud trial, only to be captured months later by federal agents.

Writes DeFede: Having once again become a fugitive, and knowing there would be a whole slew of new criminal charges against him if he was caught, the 42-year-old Magluta made the decision to remain in the United States. When I first heard that Magluta had taken off, I thought he would eventually turn up in a country that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States, living comfortably off the millions of dollars he has undoubtedly secreted away in various offshore bank accounts. Instead, he was picked up less than 100 miles from Miami wearing a cheap wig and driving a Lincoln Town Car.

Willy & Sal, Episode 7: Right Out of a Movie

This column originally published in the paper's August 27, 1998, issue, describes the undercover federal investigation that led to the arrest of Miguel Moya — who, investigators had learned, took a $500,000 bribe to sway the jury to acquit Willy and Sal of all charges in their 1996 trial. (The title refers to Pulp Fiction, which makes a cameo in the case.)

Writes DeFede: Now, it seems, a bit of revisionist history is creeping into the retelling of that infamous trial. Scott declared during his press conference that, had Moya not been bribed, Falcon and Magluta would have been convicted. The Herald interviewed another juror, Darrell Weekley, who with remarkable hindsight now claims that Moya directed all discussion in the jury room and that the other jurors followed him like sheep.

Willy & Sal, Episode 8: In Pursuit of Willy & Sal (Part 1)

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Cover of the February 25, 1999, issue of Miami New Times
Miami New Times photo
DeFede's fifth longform story about the case, published in the paper's February 25, 1999, issue, picks up with Falcon and Magluta, already in prison on relatively minor charges, awaiting their second major federal trial.

Writes DeFede: Prosecutors are now presenting to a Miami federal grand jury evidence that former Falcon and Magluta attorney Juan Acosta was gunned down in September 1989 to prevent him from becoming a government witness against the drug smugglers. The three men who carried out the homicide pleaded guilty this past July and are now government informants, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Before reaching their deal with both state and federal prosecutors, the three men — Manuel Mattos, Gregorio Tuberquia, and Javier Cadena — were facing the death penalty for the contract killing. All three pleaded guilty in state court to the reduced charge of second-degree murder.

In a highly unusual move, their sentencing hearing last fall was closed to the public and the transcript of the proceeding was sealed. Although the precise terms of their sentences are unknown, New Times has learned that in return for their cooperation in developing a new case against Falcon and Magluta, the three men eventually will be eligible for parole.

Willy & Sal, Episode 9: In Pursuit of Willy & Sal (Part 2)

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Cover of the March 4, 1999, issue of Miami New Times
New Times photo; illustration by Shirley Henderson
Only a week after New Times brought readers up to date on the status of the federal case against Falcon and Magluta, DeFede was back with his sixth longform yarn for the paper's March 4, 1999, issue.

This story chronicles the trial of Miguel Moya, foreman of the jury that had acquitted Willy and Sal a little more than three years earlier. Moya, they alleged, had accepted a bribe in return for corrupting the legal process.

Writes DeFede: "Why are we here, ladies and gentlemen?" defense attorney Curt Obront said during his opening statement? "Why is it that Miguel Moya is sitting here with his parents, charged with bribery and laundering bribe money? Why? The answer is the spending. Through the investigation with the IRS, FBI, Metro-Dade, Florida Marine Patrol, U.S. Attorney's Office, every agency imaginable — there are probably some I don't know about — they saw spending. They were convinced, 'Ah, this must be evidence of a bribe.'

"Ladies and gentlemen, Miguel Moya never took a bribe from anybody. There is an explanation for that spending that the government has not told you about in their opening statement," Obront continued. "Now that my client is sitting here, charged with bribery and laundering bribery proceeds, and he's faced with this situation, it's the moment of truth."

Obront paused, allowing the word truth to hang in the air for a moment.

Editor's note: Stay tuned! We're hard at work buffing up the rest of DeFede's Willy & Sal coverage and will be linking to it from here in the coming days.
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Tom Finkel began his journalism career in Miami in 1989, when New Times, then a fledgling weekly, hired him as a proofreader. He left as managing editor nine years later, only to return in 2019, having served in the meantime as editor-in-chief of City Pages in Minneapolis, Riverfront Times in St. Louis, and the Village Voice in New York City.
Contact: Tom Finkel