Organized Rings Run Basically "Punishment-Free' Crime Operations
Cuban refugees are dominating arrests in Florida's indoor marijuana trade in what investigators call a nearly punishment-free crime.
South Florida is considered the center of a trade in which groups of young Cubans throughout the state are turning to the lucrative business of raising ultra-potent pot worth up to $4,500 a pound, without fear of deportation or lengthy prison sentences.
Probation is a common sentence for anyone convicted in state court of running a growhouse, drug agents say. And, unlike other foreign-born felons, U.S. policy prevents the deportation of Cubans.
South Florida groups identified by law enforcement as Cuban Drug Trafficking Organizations control hundreds of growhouses that have sprung up from Miami to Atlanta since 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, court records and interviews with local and federal drug agents. "This takes me back to the old days of the mob," said Sgt. Julio Lima, of the Polk County Sheriff's Organized Crime Squad. "This is organized crime at its best."
Statewide records do not specify the nationalities of those who run growhouses. However, authorities say that Cuban influence has risen rapidly.
Supervisors for the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area estimate that 85 percent to 90 percent of the suspects arrested in Florida on grow-house-related charges were Cubans who arrived in the United States within the past five years. They base their estimate on arrests in South Florida and two statewide busts in 2008 and 2009 known as "D-Day" and "Eagle Claw." The trend is especially apparent in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. Statistics from those two statewide busts show that in Palm Beach, out of 36 arrests, 90 to 95 percent were Cuban. In Miami-Dade, out of 92 arrests, 95 percent arrested were Cubans.
While Palm Beach County doesn't track place of birth on people arrested in growhouse busts, "anecdotally, the overwhelming majority of people we find operating growhouses are of Cuban descent," said spokeswoman Teri Barbera, of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. The rise of Cuban growers has been taking place over the past decade with increasingly sophisticated methods of operations, she added.
For example, one way growhouses can be detected is by the large amount of electricity used. Now growhouses employ electricians who move from house to house to find ways to get power directly and bypass the meters.
The data paints a different picture in Broward County, where out of 18 arrests in the two statewide busts in 2008 and 2009, only two, or 11 percent, involved Cubans.
"The Cuban grow-house angle is not an issue here in Broward," said Mike Jachles, a spokesman for the Broward Sheriff's Office. "We have not seen that."
Sgt. Bill Cunneen, of the Broward Sheriff's Office, says geography plays a role.
"Broward, historically, has never been a big indoor grow-operation place," Cunneen said. "We don't have these big rural areas where these guys can really spread out and not worry about their neighbors watching them. That's what really stops them from going into the smaller, bedroom communities."
And of the growers nabbed in Broward, few are Cubans, he said. "There's no type of group that dominates the marijuana growing here."
Still, the trend shows up in many areas of the state. Some of the best data in the state on this little-known aspect of the drug trade are kept by the Polk County Sheriff's Office. A spreadsheet on every grow-house bust in Polk County since 2005 shows that 142 of 172 suspects -- 84 percent -- caught tending marijuana growhouses have identified their place of birth as Cuba.
The topic is sensitive in a state where Cuban refugee status was a badge of honor until it was tainted by a few thousand criminals in the 1980s Mariel boatlift.
"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, a Cuban-American member 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.
Told of the 348 growhouse-related arrests last year in Miami-Dade County, Diaz said, "Twenty thousand Cubans arrive in South Florida every year, so numerically 300 arrests would be a relatively small number. But I think even one is too many." In the United States last year, 49,500 Cubans were granted legal permanent residency status, according to the Congressional Research Service.
While Florida cops have learned Cuban drug rings sometimes run a half-dozen growhouses or more at once, there still is much about the organizations they don't know. The reason: There is no central database for sharing information about the illegal business.
And, while drug agents know a suspect's nationality, they don't always learn whether a growhouse worker was recruited from his home country or was lured into the trade after getting to the United States.
Raiding a marijuana patch hardly ever leads to the arrests of any ring members more important than low-level workers.
"None of them know each other, and that's for a reason," Lt. Steven Ward of Polk County Sheriff's Special Investigations Unit said. "If any one of them gets busted, they can't point the finger at each other, and they can't point the finger at the boss."
With few or no ringleader arrests, investigators are prevented from drawing a complete diagram of Cuban marijuana grow organizations. The few busts of bosses have come in much larger federal cases after months of surveillance.
For instance, in September, [redacted], both of Naples, were arrested and charged as ringleaders of eight growhouses from Sarasota to Miami. An investigation by federal drug enforcers and eight local police agencies confiscated more than 1,600 plants -- and took 18 months.
This much authorities know: Whoever is calling the shots in the Cuban indoor-grow groups is reading U.S. and Florida statutes about drug crimes and penalties. They know to keep the number of plants under 100, the number that would expose them to tough federal sentences.
Last year, Florida led the nation in growhouse shutdowns, raiding 1,022 of them, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. The average number of plants seized in those houses: 76.
Most busts stay in state court, where conviction as a first-time offender typically means probation, according to court records and drug agents across Florida.
Until the early 1980s, Florida's marijuana trade thrived on pot smuggled from Jamaica, Mexico and South America. There was little competition from home-grown "weed." Back then, agents say, most growers were white males who worked independently and raised marijuana outdoors on both public land and private property. Growhouses were rare.
Domestic pot production began to change around 2000. Interviews and court records indicate that Miami became the center of a cottage industry raising the highest-quality, most-expensive pot in Florida. The city continues to be a hub where many growers buy supplies, find bail bondsmen and call home after arrests in Central and North Florida, court records show.
"In 2000 we had 14 indoor grows, and by last year there were 348," South Florida HIDTA Director Tim Wagner said of Miami-Dade County. "About five years ago, we started to realize there was indeed a problem and we needed to do something about it."
It's a burgeoning problem: Growing 1 pound of marketable marijuana per plant every three months, a single house can produce about $1 million a year, drug agents say. And the yield is five to 10 times stronger than it was 20 years ago, say drug agents who have had the pot tested.
Drug agents across the state said they think growhouses ship about 100 pounds each every three months to Miami for distribution in the northeastern United States, at up to $8,000 a pound.
The value of indoor-grown pot far tops marijuana from Mexico, once a major source, which sells for about $1,000 a pound, Cunneen, of the Broward Sheriff's Office said.
"It's big business," Cunneen said of indoor-grown pot. "It's big bucks."
Henry Pierson Curtis and Tonya Alanez
October 30, 2009