When the flashy Colombian wanted a Mercedes, he picked a 450SL off the lot at Bill Ussery Motors here, pulled $37,000 in cash from a briefcase to pay for it and roared off.
For Jose Antonio Cabrera-Sarmiento, 49, life was strictly cash and carry.
A suspected cocaine dearler now under arrest, he swaggered when he walked, gold chains dancing about his neck, a solid gold bracelet flashing his nickname, "Pepe," in diamonds, a diamond-encrusted Piaget keeping his time. Merchants loved to see him coming.
He paid cash for condominiums, cash for his house, cash for his plane, cash for his cars. He produced cash from a shopping bag to pay for his $139,000 blue Rolls Royce. He paid a half million dollars cash for his 60-foot Hatteras yacht.
When he was arrested on drug and weapons charges outside a Miami Beach disco lat year, he had $8,400 in cash in his pockets, along with nine emeralds and enough gold and jewelry to "keep him well anchored in a hurricane," says a U.S. attorney.
A Colombian artistocrat who attributes his wealth to an emerald mine, a casino and real estate in South America, Cbrera is among the alleged drug tycoons who have been mainlining seven to 10 billion illicit dollars a year into south Florida's superheated economy, authorities say. Drugs are the largest single commercial activity in the state, rivaling the $17 billion tourist industry, according to Florida Attorney General Jim Smith.
The easy money has made merchants, bankers and real estate brokers usually unwitting partners ina counterfeit prosperty along the Gold Coast.
But before suspected dealers like Cabrera can spend their money without raising eyebrows, they have to "launder" it -- quietly deposit the dirty cash in banks, convert it to cashiers' checks or wire transfer it to disguise its source and destination.
"The biggest problem in the drug industry is what to do with all the money," says federal prosecutor Charles Blau. "People aren't getting paid by check, they're getting paid in 10s, 20s, 50s and $100 bills. Pretty soon they've got mountains of cash."
To crack the paper trail, the FBI set up its own Abscam-style undercover operation 2 1/2 years ago and became "bankers" for Florida dope dealers. Agents laundered $200 million in drug money and even turned a tidy $4 million profit in the massive operation disclosed Tuesday.
Dealers were video-taped as they dropped off sacks and suitcases containing upward of $1 million at the bogus company run by federal agents.
Yesterday, Miami police arrested 32 suspected cocaine dealers in "Operation Tick Tock," a nine-month undercover operation named for a microphone hidden in a ticking clock. Among those arrested were three brothers, all anit-Castro Cubans and Bay of Pigs vetrans once trained in undercover work by the Central Intelligence Agency, CBS said.
The huge transfusions of cash from the drug world's underground economy have not only made Miami the Wall Street of dope; they have fueled inflation and expectations, driving up the price of cars and homes because super-rich clients like Cabrera are willing to pay the asking price without a blink.
"The amount of cash they deposit in banks and spend on Mercedes, Porsches, condominiums, yachts and jewelry is astronomical," says assistant U.S. attorney Thomas Sclafani, a narcotics prosecutor who specializes in tracing and seizing drug dealers' assets. "One Porsche dealer told us, 'I'd got out of business if it weren't for the dopers.'"
He gazes from his 10th floor window out across town, toward gleaming high-rise office buildings and condominiums under construction along Brickell Avenue, one of Miami's posh main streets. "The avenue's not all built on dope money, but some of the foundations were certainly laid" by people under investigation, he says.
The price of a new home in Dade County last year increased $5,000 solely because combines of drug dealers seeking to launder their money outbid legitimate developers for large home tracts, says real estate consultant Charles Kimball, who tracks buyers and sellers. One $20 million all-cash transaction for home sites in Dade County was traced to an offshore corporation authorities have tied to Colombian drug dealers, he says.
Over the last few years, foreign buyers have gobbled up condominiums. Their ready cash, much of it suspected drug money, may ironically lead to a real estate bust similar to the early '70s, says Kimball. The market is so glutted with condominiums that developers who kept building to satisfy a semmingly insatiable demand now find that there isn't even enough cocaine money to take up the slack.
"Foreign money and cocaine money have fueled an artificial real estate economy in South Florida," says Kimball.
Of course, Florida's booming economy can't all be laid to drug lords seeking to launder "narcobucks." Florida has always been an attractive haven for Latin American wealth. Ex-Caribbean dictators have invested millions in Miami real estate. And legitimate European and Saudi investors still find Miami property a bargain.
Last month, a Swiss bank "came to us to find an orange grove for a client," says Fred Smith, president of Keyes Realty. "So we found them a 1,000-acre grove and they wired $7 million into our account. We don't know who the buyer was."
It's almost impossible to distinguish dirty dollars from clean, he says. "Now, if someone says, 'I want a house. I don't care what it looks like, as long as it has a dock,' we report it. That sounds pretty suspicious."
Heavily Spanish-speaking, Miami has become a Hong Kong for Latin American tourists who flock to shops and departments stores in the Omni, a moder shopping mall downtown, to snap up designer clothes, TVs, appliances and jewelry. Last March, a Colombian walked into Mayor's Jewelers here and bought a flawless five-carat pear-shaped diamond for $230,000. He paid cash -- $100s, $50s and $20s -- from a paper bag.
"Someone lays out $100,000 from a paper bag, it's no big deal," says Richard Getz, 27, Mayor's branch manager. He's sold about 400 Rolex watches since January, many for cash. "You see so much money every day, you get desensitized.
"You get everyone from dope dealers to self-made millionaires. A lot don't give their last names. We never ask what they do. But we kid a lot whenever someonek pulls money from a paper bag: 'Boy, he must have brought in a suitcase of cocaine.' But most South Americans pay in cash and you never know where they get the money."
Much of the money flows through the region's prospering banks. Treasury Department auditors traced more than $100 million in drug money to deposits in eight Miami banks last year, according to a secret report described by Miami newspapers.
"In Miami, you have a solid core of banks that cater to these guys," says Sclafani. "Then they use the old ostrich defense to say they didn't know where the money came from."
Officials say a generous chunk of the mysterious $4 billion in excess cash in the Miami federal reserve bank -- the only branch in the federal reserve system that regularly reports huge cash surpluses -- comes from drug revenue. Miami banks send their enormous incomes to the federal reserve bank for safekeeping.
Even though curious cash deposits in suitcases are often here today, wired out tomorrow, bankers make money on them. Arthur Griffin, 56, a senior vice president of Landmark First National Bank in Fort Lauderdale, says banks "wouldn't accept the money if it weren't profitable. Many banks in Miami are aware of what's going on but don't choose to do anything about it."
Griffin's own bank "laundered" some $70 million in alleged drug revenues for two Colombian drug dealers during a six-month period last year. They deposited the money with the help of three Landmark employes who falsified bank records to cover up the cash, according to federal indictments. Griffin got suspicious when boxes of cash began arriving. He was told the new clients were wealthy Salvadoreans taking money out of their unstable country.
The cash kept coming. one day couriers arrived with $1.5 million in 20s, 50s and 100s. Griffin had to pay a dozen tellers five hours overtime to count it. "I never saw so much money in my life," he says.
He called the FBI. One loan officer and two Colombian brothers, Herman and Roberto Botero, were indicted for importing cocaine, conspiracy to defraud the government, making false statements to the Internal Revenue Service and failure to file the proper currency reports.
Stung by bad press, several banks have cracked down, turning away suspicious customers with suitcases full of cash. "We wish we'd never heard of cash," says Frank Preve, president of the International Bank of Miami and an officer with the Florida Banker's Association."It's shaken up the system. In the mid-70s, cash came in and banks weren't asking any questions about where it, came from. Today, they're asking questions because they're feeling the repercussions" -- the expense and notoriety of government investigations.
Sometimes individuals take it upon themselves to smuggle cash out of the country. Last August 34-year-old Maria Lilia Rojas of Bogota was caught at the Miami airport with $1.5 million in hermetically sealed Monopoly games. Others seek out middlemen to handle the cash.
That's where Issac Kattan, 46, a portly, balding Colombian, came in. Until his federal conviction for cocaine dealing in a May, he ran a gigantic money laundering operation as "South Florida's Al Capone," says Blau. Kattan's couriers picked up cash from other drug dealers, then spirited the dirty, crumpled bills to one of four downtown apartments.
There, the millions were counted by high-speed money machines, packed in cardboard boxes, then delivered by his men to at least four Miami banks. Employers sometimes groused that the often-grimy bills reeked of a foul odor, as if they had been buried.
Kattan even had a stockbroker. His couriers, under surveillance by federal agents, dropped off an average of $1 million a day in cash during a two-week period. The cash was deposited in the firm's money fund -- where it drew 17.5 percent interest -- then wired to one of eight accounts in four Swiss banks, per Kattan's instructions.
Kattan had a home computer to keep track of his accounts. He never carried a gun to protect the cash. He didn't have to "Who's going to mess with Al Capone?" muses Blau.
It is this kind of cash that has tended to spoil some Miami merchants. One federal prosecutor went shopping for a foreign car recently, blanched at the price tag and tried to bargain. The salesman snapped, "South Americans come in here and pay me cash for the sticker price. I don't need this kind of grief." He stalked off.
"Working people trying to stretch an honest dollar in Miami just can't compete with the drug cash floating around," says Thomas Sclafani, who gave up looking for a car. "If we ever put a dent in the drug business, the local economy is going to feel it."