Cuban refugees are dominating arrests in Florida's indoor-marijuana trade, investigators say.
Groups identified by law enforcement as Cuban drug trafficking organizations control hundreds of grow houses that have sprung up from Miami to Atlanta since 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, court records and Orlando Sentinel interviews with local and federal drug agents.
They're lured to the marijuana trade by money — the ultrapotent pot is worth up to $4,500 a pound — and by lenient punishments, according to authorities. Probation is a common sentence for anyone convicted in state court of running a grow house with fewer than 100 plants, drug agents say, and U.S. policy prevents the deportation of Cubans.
Statewide, records aren't kept that specify the nationalities of the people who run grow houses. However, investigators point to other data:
— South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area supervisors estimate that Cubans who arrived in the U.S. within the past five years represent 85 percent to 90 percent of the suspects arrested in Florida on grow-house-related charges. They based their estimate on arrests in South Florida, the center of the trade, and two statewide busts in 2008 and 2009.
— In Poinciana, Cuban-born suspects represent about 85 percent of growers arrested on both sides of the Osceola-Polk county. A spreadsheet the Polk County Sheriff's Office keeps on every grow-house bust since 2005 shows that 142 of 172 suspects — 84 percent — caught tending marijuana grow houses have identified their place of birth as Cuba.
— Central Florida drug agents say in the past year Cuban-born suspects ran about 20 of 41 grow houses in Brevard County; nine of 12 grow houses in Orange County; 10 of 13 in Osceola County; nine of 11 in Lake County; and 12 of 42 in Volusia County. In North Florida, drug agents say, the number runs about 70 percent and higher.
"The last thing we want to do in law enforcement is crucify the Cuban-American community as a whole — they have made South Florida what it is today," said Capt. Joe Mendez of the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. "That's why we are saying these are Cuban refugees, recent arrivals. ... They arrive here on a raft, and drug dealers give them a place to live and promise them they'll own the (grow) house in a year or two."
Cuban-American National Council President Guarione M. Diaz in Miami was unaware of the high percentage of young Cuban-born suspects arrested statewide in the pot trade. "But I think even one is too many," he said.
Cuban drug rings are among the drug-trafficking organizations in Florida identified by origin by the federal government. Those include African-American, Bahamian, non-Hispanic, Colombian, Dominican, Israeli, Jamaican, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan.
However, no law enforcement agency tracks the number of drug rings or arrests. Authorities may know a suspect's nationality, but they don't always learn whether a grow house worker was recruited in the U.S. or his home country. Raids rarely lead to the arrests of anyone above the low-level workers, authorities say.
Until the early 1980s, Florida's marijuana trade thrived on pot smuggled from Jamaica, Mexico and South America. There was little competition from Florida-grown pot, and most growers were white males who worked independently and raised marijuana outdoors on both public land and private property, agents say.
Domestic pot production began to change around 2000. Interviews and court records indicate that Miami became the center of a cottage industry, and the city continues to be a hub where many growers buy supplies, find bail bondsmen and return after arrests in central and north Florida.
"In 2000 we had 14 indoor grows, and by last year there were 348," said Tim Wagner, director of the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.
Drug agents statewide said they think grow houses ship about 100 pounds every three months to Miami for distribution in the Northeastern U.S. at up to $8,000 a pound.
October 18, 2009