FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Armed U.S. marshals normally surprise fugitives by breaking down doors and hauling people off in handcuffs. This time, federal agents took a different tack: They called the wanted man and politely asked him to return.
“He confirmed, absolutely, I know I’m wanted in the U.S., and I’m not coming back to the U.S. because I know I’m going to prison,” Barry Golden, U.S. Marshals Service spokesman, said of the April 2014 call to accused alien smuggler Junior Arce de la Cruz.
Why the unusual treatment? Because Arce de la Cruz was in Cuba. The incident underscores the difficulty of retrieving fugitives from the Communist-led nation.
President Barack Obama’s recent move to restore official diplomatic ties with Cuba has renewed calls for the return of fugitives, but Cuba has asserted its right to offer political asylum to certain individuals and has yet to return a single fugitive. The two countries do not regularly cooperate on police matters or honor an extradition treaty signed more than 100 years ago.
“That has to be a critical part of the discussion with the Cubans,” Sen. Marco Rubio said Friday at a news conference in West Palm Beach.
Rubio, a Florida Republican and Cuban-American, said he’s stressed the need to demand the return of fugitives with the State Department and the U.S. diplomat leading the talks with Cuban officials.
“No one seems to have a good answer about why it isn’t a higher priority,” he said. “I think it’s outrageous that there are people living in Cuba, with tens of millions of dollars they stole from the American taxpayers, with no consequences.”
Even flashy credit-card fugitive Gilberto Martinez, a music video artist who flaunted his extravagant lifestyle on Facebook and YouTube, hasn’t been returned — despite being busted by Cuban police last month. Authorities can be seen in online videos raiding his sprawling, custom-built home outside Havana, yet U.S. officials still don’t know where he is or whether he’ll be handed over.
Nationwide, the Marshals Service is seeking more than 500 Cuban-born individuals whose whereabouts are unknown, the agency said in response to a public records request.
Federal officials publicly have put the number of fugitives in Cuba at between 100 and 130. The Sun Sentinel, in an investigation published earlier this year of Cuban crime rings in the U.S., found references in court files to another 50 who have found safe harbor on the island.
No exact number exists, however, because no single state or federal agency tracks it.
The Marshals Service in South Florida released to the Sun Sentinel the names of seven Cuban-born fugitives the agency has confirmed returned to Cuba.
They include an accused check forger, cocaine trafficker, and illegal bird importer: low-profile cases that don’t receive the level of attention of the cop killers and airplane hijackers given refuge by the Castro government.
“We believe there probably is a larger number of fugitives who are wanted here in the U.S. and have fled back to their native country of Cuba,” Golden said. “It’s just very hard right now to confirm that they’re actually residing in Cuba.
“A lot of times fugitives will take the long route,” Golden said. “They’ll go through Mexico or another country and end up in Cuba. We don’t have a U.S. Embassy in Cuba, so there’s no one we can just pick up the phone and call and run a database search for those fugitives who may have entered the country.”
Some of the Cuban-born individuals the Marshals Service hopes will one day be returned from Cuba to face justice include:
NAME: Angel Perez-Robles
CHARGE: Credit-card fraud
YEARS ON THE LAM: 6
Perez-Robles had served three years in a U.S. prison for smuggling Cubans into Florida by boat in a 2003 case. He was arrested again in December 2007, accused of conspiring with a Macy’s clerk and others to use stolen credit-card numbers to obtain clothes, cosmetics, perfume, gift cards and other items worth more than $100,000. Perez-Robles bonded out and by April 2008 had disappeared. Authorities learned in 2011 that he was jailed in Cuba and was scheduled to be released, Golden said. It’s not known why he was detained there.
NAME: Robin Carlos Perez
CHARGE: Possession with intent to distribute cocaine
YEARS ON THE LAM: 5
In December 2009, the Florida Highway Patrol in Fort Lauderdale arrested Perez and Rolando Morales-Yanes after a traffic stop of a tractor-trailer containing about 40 kilos of cocaine. Released on bond, the men fled the country. The U.S. Marshals Service issued a warrant in March 2010 for their arrest. Morales-Yanes was caught in June 2010 trying to enter Canada. While on the lam, Morales-Yanes told authorities, he went to Mexico and traveled to Cuba and Chile before trying to enter Canada. The man said Perez was in Cuba and gave a general location, Golden said.
NAME: Eduardo Moreno
CHARGE: Health care fraud
YEARS ON THE LAM: 7
Indicted in April 2007 for fleecing Medicare, Moreno allegedly recruited a recent Cuban immigrant to be the front man and sign checks and other paperwork for two fake medical equipment companies in Coral Gables and Miami, according to court records. One office was housed in a utility closet, containing “buckets of sand mix, road tar and a large wrench,” an investigator found. In the span of about three months, the companies billed Medicare more than $3.8 million and received about $77,000, court records state. Moreno allegedly used $10,000 to pay the sales tax on a 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom for his girlfriend. Released on bond, he fled within the year, ending up in Havana. “It’s not a secret,” Golden said. “He advertises the fact he’s a DJ for hire in Cuba and caters to the more upscale weddings.”
NAME: Yamile Dominguez
CHARGE: Check forgery
YEARS ON THE LAM: 3
Postal Service inspectors arrested Dominguez in March 2011 for check forgery in Miami. According to the indictment, which includes few details, she passed two forged checks in February 2010. Evidence in the case, according to another court filing, includes a phony check worth $985, and four altered Western Union money orders totaling more than $1,200. Released on bond, she skipped court in May 2011. In 2013, federal agents learned that she was hiding in Cancun, Mexico, and sought an international arrest warrant, Golden said. Before the paperwork was approved, however, she boarded a flight to Havana and escaped capture.
NAME: Jose Angel Flores
CHARGE: Smuggling exotic birds
YEARS ON THE LAM: 26
In April 1988, after receiving a distress call, the U.S. Coast Guard boarded a boat near the Sombrero Key Lighthouse and found 293 birds in the cabin, including one scarlet macaw, 48 parrots, a mustached parakeet and 190 other unidentified birds, Golden said. Officials also found a motel receipt from Cuba and various souvenirs from the island. Authorities charged Jose Angel Flores with wildlife smuggling. He bonded out of jail but failed to appear at his November 1988 sentencing. Prosecutors changed him in March 1992 with bail jumping. Two decades later, the U.S. Marshals Service received information that he was in Cuba.
NAME: Inocente Hernandez Lores
CHARGE: Marijuana trafficking
YEARS ON THE LAM: 27
Indicted in October 1987 for marijuana distribution, Hernandez Lores fled. In February 1988 he and three others were captured by the Cuban Coast Guard aboard a boat, the “Mary,” carrying 7,700 pounds of marijuana, U.S. authorities learned. As of 2012, Hernandez Lores was still believed to be in Cuba, Golden said. “At this point in time we don’t know if they’re still incarcerated or their status because we don’t have any way of verifying that.”
NAME: Junior Arce de la Cruz
CHARGE: Alien smuggling
YEARS ON THE LAM: 6
In August 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard watched a go-fast boat approach Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park and drop 35 Cuban nationals on shore, according to the criminal complaint. A grand jury indicted Arce de la Cruz and another man for alien smuggling. Arce de la Cruz posted bond but failed to show up for court a month later. Last year, a family member told the marshals that he had returned to Cuba and provided authorities with his mother’s phone number in the Pinar del Rio region. When the U.S. agents called, Arce de la Cruz answered, telling them he’d returned to Cuba by boat. According to Golden, the marshals tried to coerce him to return to the U.S. where he could see his 10-year-old son, serve his time, and “put this behind you.” Arce de la Cruz asked for some time to think about it. Weeks later, the marshals obtained his cellphone number and called him back. Working in Cuba as a cab driver, Arce de la Cruz said he feared crossing the Florida Straits again and declined to “hop on a plane and fly back into Miami and surrender himself,” Golden said.
Because of the estrangement between the two countries, U.S. marshals cannot simply send a plane to Cuba to pick up fugitives. “I wish it was that easy but it’s not,” Golden said.
Instead, the agency waits for fugitives to make a mistake and enter the U.S. again, or for the rare instance when Cuba does hand someone over.
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