"I'll keep my money wherever I please," sneered Artemio López Tardón. With his one good eye, Los Miami's second in command glared at the cops swarming his stately narco-fortress on Azalea Avenue in Madrid. Seven years earlier he had been blinded, shot through both knees, and left in the street to die by a rival drug lord, but today he stood firmly as police wrenched his hands behind his back and handcuffed him.
On that morning of July 14, Spanish National Police had broken through the mansion's front door and poured inside, assault rifles drawn. In minutes, they had arrested 16 suspected members of Spain's most notorious drug ring without firing a shot. But a mystery remained: Where was all the money?
Police quickly found 400,000 euros scattered around the gaudy, aquarium-filled pleasure palace. They discovered another 100 grand stuffed in a dirty laundry basket, then 5 million hidden beneath the mansion's elevator. Finally, they brought out a jackhammer. Between the foot of López Tardón's bed and his ten-person Jacuzzi, police unearthed a secret compartment containing a staggering 19 million euros. The combined haul was the largest horde of drug cash ever recovered in Europe.
At that moment — 3:30 a.m. across the Atlantic — a dozen squad cars roared up the long red-brick drive of the Continuum condos in South Beach. Scores of FBI agents swarmed the high-rise as well as two apartments across the water on Brickell Bay Drive. They nabbed four more alleged members of Los Miami, including Fabiani Krentz — a Brazilian bedecked in fur and precious gems who, when she wasn't working for UPS, was the group's fast-talking frontwoman. Most important, the feds arrested Artemio's younger brother, Álvaro — the sculpted, tattooed, Santería-worshipping leader of one of Europe's largest, bloodiest drug networks.
Were it not for court records, which are the basis for this article, the story of Los Miami would be hard to believe. In South Florida, the group stands accused of laundering more than $26 million in drug proceeds by buying fancy condos and fast cars. Relying on Santería and assassins to vanquish his enemies, Álvaro directed trans-Atlantic deliveries of cocaine from his South Pointe penthouse, prosecutors say. At least until "Operation Azaleas" — one of the largest intelligence operations in recent Miami history — brought his business to an end.
But even more extraordinary is the gang's backstory, mixing the bitter vendettas of The Godfather with the irrepressible villains and absurd twists of a Coen brothers movie. Indeed, Álvaro López Tardón was wanted for at least five murders as well as countless assaults and kidnappings in Spain, where he and his brother had waged a bloody feud with their former boss, a one-legged man named "Dwarf." Álvaro's defense attorney, Richard Klugh, also thinks the story sounds fictional.
"This case is a lot of sound and fury," he said at his client's detention hearing. Despite a trail of drug labs and dead bodies, Klugh contends Álvaro and company made their millions trading cars across the Atlantic. Álvaro is expected to join his codefendants in pleading not guilty this week. But with more than 20 arrests and multiple cooperating witnesses, the weight of evidence is against Los Miami.
Either way, the remarkable case suggests that the gang's namesake city remains central to the international drug trade. Although Los Miami have fallen, vice is still very much alive in the Magic City.
The road to drug riches began in Mediterranean discotheques sometime in the '90s. It was a family affair. Two brothers, Juan Carlos and Iván Peña Enano — "Dwarf" in Spanish — controlled the entrance of cocaine and Ecstasy into nightclubs up and down the Levant. Aided by the López Tardón brothers, the Enanos began selling drugs directly, Spanish police say. Profit soared, as did Álvaro's standing in the group. Soon he was Juan Carlos's top lieutenant. Flush with cash, the gang flew to Miami to buy Corvettes — a habit that earned the rapidly expanding operation the name "Los Miami," which they splashed on their leather bomber jackets.
By the late '90s, Los Miami had muscled their way into Madrid. Not even a January 1997 bust could slow them down. Álvaro and Artemio were both arrested, but in a pattern that would become familiar in Spain, witnesses were too intimidated to talk. By 2001, Los Miami had become one of the largest drug networks in Europe, collaborating with Colombian cartels to ship cocaine to Spain via land and sea, authorities believe. As the cartels' "bankers," the gang made 58 million euros per year and employed a fleet of corrupt cops to avoid arrest.
As coffers swelled, violence spun out of control. Police arrested Álvaro for the 2003 murder of a local cop, but he got off again when witnesses failed to testify. And when Álvaro tried to split from his boss, all hell broke loose. Spanish police say Juan Carlos tried to kill his deputy. In return, after a meeting to settle the feud, Artemio ran Juan Carlos off the road on his motorcycle. The drug don lost half of his left leg.
War broke out between the two factions. Juan Carlos's henchmen threw a Molotov cocktail into Álvaro's car. When Álvaro disappeared, they kidnapped his brother instead. They tortured Artemio for four days, beating him so badly he went blind in one eye. Then they shot him in the kneecaps. Believing him dead, they dumped him on a Madrid street.
After ordering another failed ambush on Juan Carlos, Álvaro fled to Miami in December 2004. With Juan Carlos near dead after being shot twice and exiled to Brazil, Álvaro now ran the Los Miami drug network remotely. Artemio had miraculously survived his torture, and the two brothers scaled up their distribution of coke throughout Europe.
"They started out bringing processed cocaine to Spain from Colombia," U.S. prosecutor Juan Antonio Gonzalez says. But coca paste was cheaper, so the brothers paid Ana María Cameno Antolín, "the Cocaine Queen," to turn the sludge into powder cocaine using chemicals and lamps hidden in dilapidated farms outside Madrid. Cuts of the profit went to her and Artemio, while funds were reinvested into recruiting listless youths at gyms around the capital to train as assassins.
But tens of millions of dollars were also laundered through Miami, where Álvaro had already built a small team of close associates. His straw buyer was Krentz, who made exponentially more setting up shell corporations in Madrid and Miami than she did as a marketing manager for UPS. Prosecutors say she then wired drug money to Miami, where she bought luxury condos. Then she quietly transferred them to Álvaro.
Álvaro also relied on his right-hand man, David "Maverick" Pollack, to launder narco-cash. He often sent Pollack to Spain, where the American bought dozens of jaw-dropping cars — including a $1.5 million Bugatti Veyron and a $500,000 Lamborghini Murciélago — then promptly sold them to a company called Collection Motor Sport. Álvaro's attorney insists the business was legitimate, but prosecutors don't buy it.
"We're not exactly talking about a sophisticated money-laundering operation here," Gonzalez says. He points out that Collection Motor Sport was registered to Álvaro in Madrid and Miami. "He was essentially selling the cars to himself." And even if the transfers across the Atlantic were legit, where — if not from drug dealing — did Pollack get the money in the first place?
"He had no accounts in Spain, and he didn't take any money," Gonzalez argues. "In fact, in 2007, when he bought the Lamborghini Murciélago and a [$250,000] Ferrari F430, his reported income... was $38,740."
If cocaine and cars were the group's lifeblood, Santería was its soul. Both Álvaro and Artemio were devout believers. Vicente Orlando Cardelle — a Cuban known as "Padrino" — flew back and forth between the brothers to perform spiritual cleansings, for which they rewarded him with cash and plastic surgery for his wife. The santero even put a photo of Álvaro's archrival, Juan Carlos Enano, in a caldron in the boss's South Pointe penthouse to keep him safe. But Álvaro didn't rely on spirits alone. He installed security cameras in the Coconut Grove condo he shared with his American wife, Sharon Cohen. And he bought $103,000 safes for each residence.
None of Álvaro's precautions, however, could keep his operations hidden. On January 7, Spanish police raided a Los Miami cocaine lab near Madrid, arresting Antolín and seizing 300 kilos of coke and 33 tons of precursor chemicals. It was the largest drug seizure in European history.
The noose was tightening around Los Miami. Álvaro desperately needed to return to Spain to manage the fallout of the bust, but when he asked his wife to sign his visa papers on March 1, she refused. Enraged, he stormed after her.
"At that point [he] went into a rage, head-butted a television set, took a knife, and then held that knife to the throat of his wife and threatened her," Gonzalez argued at Álvaro's detention hearing. Neighbors in the bougainvillea-filled complex called the cops, and Álvaro was arrested for aggravated assault. When he was released the next day, he returned almost immediately to the apartment and was cuffed again for violating a restraining order. Cops found eight diamonds, six luxury watches, five cell phones, and $10,350 cash in his car.
But the feds weren't ready to spring their trap. They released Álvaro, just as they released Pollack and Cardelle the santero after each was nabbed trying to carry more than 20,000 euros to Madrid in January and April, respectively. Whether Álvaro caught wind of the investigation or was simply protecting assets from his soon-to-be ex-wife, he began hiding his money and holed up in his 38th-floor penthouse at 100 South Pointe Dr.
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That's where police found him in the early-morning hours of July 14. They broke down the door just as their Spanish counterparts were raiding his brother's mansion in Madrid. And they used a small battering ram to break into Fabiani Krentz's Brickell Bay Drive apartment. Whereas her loft was full of designer shoes, clothes, and jewelry, Álvaro's lair was covered in Santería votives. "They tore that place apart," one Continuum employee said afterward. "They knocked down the door, the walls, everything."
The raid brought an end to more than a decade of drug trafficking and money laundering. In court, prosecutors have already begun portraying Álvaro as a modern Tony Montana who — despite his Facebook postings on spirituality — was hellbent on revenge and profit. "This was a very violent gang in terms of murders and extortions," Gonzalez says.
But this is Miami — not everyone is happy to see Álvaro go.
"He was a real nice guy," the Continuum employee said. Asked if Álvaro was popular, he added, "You ever had $26 million? It buys you a lot of friends."