Sal Speaks

It is unlikely that either Willy Falc centsn or Sal Magluta will take the stand during their trial, but in a 30-minute conversation with New Times earlier this month, Magluta talked publicly for the first time since his arrest.

Speaking by phone from the federal jail in downtown Miami, Magluta says he is cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the trial, in which he and Falc centsn are accused of smuggling two billion dollars' worth of cocaine over the past sixteen years. "Overall, I think it's going rather well," Magluta says.

His attorneys advised him not to discuss the specifics of the indictment, but he touched on a number of topics, including his treatment in prison while awaiting trial. "The last four years have been a realization of something I never thought could happen in this country," says Magluta, who immigrated from Cuba with his parents when he was a child. "There is no one who believes in the American system more than I do. This country gave my family a new life. But this experience has really left a sour taste in my mouth."

When Falc centsn and Magluta were arrested in late 1991, they were already surrounded by a certain mystique. "They were like gods in the doper community," a federal agent said at the time. "All you'd hear was 'Willy and Sal this' and 'Willy and Sal that.'"

That level of infamy increased even after they had been taken into custody. Federal agents and prison officials suspected the pair would use their enormous wealth and resources to escape, and when a cellular telephone A smuggled into federal prison in South Dade via a bribed guard A was found in the same wing where Falc centsn and Magluta were housed, those fears intensified. But not long after their arrest, after several witnesses who were slated to testify against Falc centsn and Magluta turned up dead or seriously injured, the Bureau of Prisons began handling the pair in a way that few convicts -- let alone two men still awaiting trial -- are treated: They placed them in solitary confinement, where they remained for nearly three years.

Magluta denies having had any involvement in the murders of Juan Acosta, Luis Escobedo, Bernardo Gonzalez, and Humberto Gonzalez, or in the attacks on Juan Barroso and Lazaro Cruz. And neither he nor Falc centsn has been charged in connection with any of the incidents. And yet, Magluta contends, prison officials have worked in concert with the U.S. Attorney's Office to use those crimes as justification for isolating them from prison populations. "Where is the presumption of innocence?" asks Magluta. "Where is justice?"

Falc centsn and Magluta each spent 1000 days in solitary. For a time, Falc centsn was transferred to the maximum-security unit at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, while Magluta was sent to a similar wing in Atlanta. Magluta says the time he spent alone was maddening. "Only living it day and night can you know," he comments.

After they were returned to Miami in April to prepare for the trial, they occasionally appeared in court with their attorneys. At the end of each hearing, a small ritual ensued. Falc centsn and Magluta would hug each of their attorneys, who in turn would pat them hard on the back. "Just to see someone and be able to hold them tight," Magluta explains. "The fact that you could touch another human being."

Several months ago, on the eve of the trial, defense attorneys asked for a postponement, arguing in effect that the severe isolation had rendered their clients insane and unfit for trial. They presented psychiatric testimony supporting that contention. The government countered with its own team of psychiatrists. Judge Federico Moreno ruled that whatever impairment the two suffered would quickly fade now that Falc centsn and Magluta were being held under less restrictive conditions.

But even those conditions are unusual by almost any standard. The two defendants have an entire wing of one floor all to themselves. No other inmates are allowed to have any contact with them. Whenever they are moved from their cells to the adjoining courthouse or are returned to their cells at the end of the day, the entire jail goes on a heightened state of alert, Magluta says, with a call going out across the PA system: "Stop all inmate movement." No other inmates are allowed to be in the hallways or the elevators at the same time he and Falc centsn are, Magluta contends, a distinction no other prisoner shares. "Every time we walk in or out, they close the whole building down," he says. "Everybody knows when we are going to court."

That concern doesn't end when they arrive at the courthouse. In addition to the the metal detector everyone entering the building must pass through, a second device has been placed in the hallway leading to Judge Moreno's courtroom. While court is in session, more than a dozen U.S. marshals, some of whom have been flown to Miami especially for this assignment, are stationed in and around the courtroom. Any visitor entering the courtroom must sign in and present identification.

"It is absurd," says Jeffrey Weiner, a criminal defense attorney who represented one of Falc centsn and Magluta's co-defendants and who is a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It is absolutely a disgraceful situation when people have to show ID to go into a public courtroom. This has nothing to do with security. They just want to know who is in the courtroom watching the trial. The DEA is getting these names every night and putting them in their intelligence files. It's wrong, and I am surprised Judge Moreno is allowing it."

DEA spokesman Jim Shedd refuses to discuss the matter, saying it is not appropriate for him to comment during an ongoing trial.

Each day in court, the trial draws curious onlookers. For opening statements, people were waiting in line to get in. Sitting in the hallway unable to find a seat in the courtroom that day was Magluta's wife Isabel. "I don't know who most of these people are," she whispered. "With Willy and Sal, people just come here to look at them, like they are on display. I guess they want to be able to tell their friends that they saw them."

As the crowds have dissipated over time, Falc centsn's and Magluta's families have remained a constant in the gallery. The prosecutors contend that the families not only knew about the pair's drug-smuggling exploits, but that they financially prospered because of them. "My family keeps a lot of faith," counters Magluta. "Regardless of what people think, my family is a Christian family. We leave it in God's hands. He knows the reason why things happen in life.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede