Friday, October 15, 2010

Forbidden Fruit

Here’s the irony of it. I was inspired to leave communist Cuba by the wealth of the Soviets.

My hometown of Cienfuegos is a port city. In my childhood, Russian freighters came into port to load up with brown sugar, processed there in town, and stored in a warehouse so big that it’s celebrated on Cuban currency as a symbol of the success of Castro’s revolution. The Russian crews of the ships would wander through town on shore leave. There wasn’t anything especially fascinating going on in Cienfuegos. Except the people.

And our visitors from far away seemed to take a special interest in me. I was the typical, smiling, barefoot island boy. I would climb trees and throw coconuts down to the Russians. I picked mangos and papayas for them. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, and they didn’t understand me, but we communicated with smiles, sign language, and commerce. If I put on the little native boy act and tossed them coconuts, then showed them how to open them, I got something in trade. They gave me candy and bubble gum and toys. Whether Castro would have admitted it or approved, that was free market capitalism in its most basic and, to me, most beautiful form. And I was hooked on it.

The Russians might have thought Cuba was exotic, but to me everything they had was new and strange and wonderful. They must have thought mangos were an amazing fruit. I felt the same way about the grapes they gave me. I had no idea what to call them, but I knew they were delicious. What else did I need to know? Years later, in America, I ate grapes again, and I recognized them by the taste before I remembered the appearance. Uva in Spanish. Grape in English. I still don’t know how to say it in Russian. And I still don’t care.

Castro might have been proud of the grand brown sugar warehouse he’d built and of what it said to the world about Cuba’s wealth. All I knew was the scarcity his revolution had imposed upon the island.

When I finally left Cuba in the Mariel boatlift, that scarcity was still all around me. As I said in an earlier post, in the camp where my friend Chamizo and I were waiting to be assigned to a boat, there wasn’t enough for everyone to eat. I had to sneak out of the camp to get us some food, then sneak back in. By the time we got on the Alba Junior, we were once again starving. And that old rusted shrimp boat didn’t make it all the way to Key West. The captain radioed a distress call and all of the passengers had to be rescued.

A Navy helicopter came rumbling toward us. They had to move quickly, so instead of carrying us one by one, or two by two, they lowered a huge cargo net and loaded up about a dozen or more of us at a time. Then the helicopter lifted us off the Alba Junior. There were kids and old people and prisoners all squished together in the net as we whipped through the air above the whitecaps of the Caribbean. Minutes later they set us gently on the deck of the USS Saipan, an aircraft carrier.

After they made sure we were okay, a sailor gave me an apple. I’d never seen an apple before, but I knew it was food, and I was starving. I bit into it and was amazed at how crisp and sweet and juicy it was. I ate the whole thing—seeds, core, even the stem probably. And the sailor asked me if I wanted another. I said I did. I ate the whole thing again, then licked the juice off my fingers and the palm of my hand.

I may not have been on American soil, but on the enormous deck of that aircraft carrier I knew I was in America—a vast nation of crisp, sweet fruit. A consumer driven country, as Castro had told us. And I was ready to consume it.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I said in a previous post that I never encountered any problems when making deliveries of cocaine for Fabio, my boss. That’s true, but one event—let’s say—made me wonder.

I delivered to a number of groups in a few organizations from Miami to New Orleans, all with established relationships with Fabio. One group was in Kissimmee, Florida, just south of Orlando. It’s near Disney World, but these guys had nothing to do with kid stuff. After the Mariel boatlift in 1980, established coke dealing operations throughout the state of Florida were replaced by Cubans. They called us the “fearless Marielitos” because we would take on anybody. And if somebody tried to stand in our way, he was in big trouble. I have to say I’m thankful that I never got into the really heavy stuff—the killings. Most of the fearless Marielitos were that way because they were molded into that form by Castro’s prison system. They’d been turned into the most angry, violent men you’d ever want to meet.

These guys I delivered to in Kissimmee were a group of Marielitos, but that wasn’t what made me think twice about them. By that time I’d reinvented myself as a bad ass in order to survive the streets of Little Havana. I was one of them. But all these guys in the Kissimmee group were also into Santeria. Santeria is a religion popular in Cuba, but it has a light side and a dark side, much as Voodoo does. After Castro seized power in 1959, during his victory speech a white dove landed on his shoulder. In Santeria that’s a very good sign, and many Cubans took it to mean that Castro had been chosen by divine power to be their leader. Was that a manifestation of the light side of the religion or the dark side? I guess people will form their own opinions about that one.

These Marielitos I delivered to in Kissimmee? They were definitely into the dark side. They took creepy to a whole new level. But even that didn’t bother me. I didn’t care what kind of stuff they believed in. They never messed with me. Not directly anyway.

But there was a girl with them. Her name was Blanca. In Spanish, Blanca means white. It’s a name popular among Catholics because it represents purity. But this girl had nothing to do with purity. She was a dark, delicious Cubanita, and after I made my delivery one night, she pulled me aside. She started flirting with me—and touching and smiling and whispering and laughing. She was like the devil himself, that girl. Smoldering hot. Hot enough to burn any man. And believe it or not, I’m no prude. Another time, another place, different circumstances, I’d have been all over her. But this girl was not natural. Her come on was not natural. I’d had my share of pretty girls, but Blanca was coming on to me like no girl I’d ever seen or heard about.

These people in the Kissimmee group wanted something. Not from me—from Fabio. I knew they were trying to get deeper into his business—the learn about his distribution, his supplier, his way of moving money—something. They were trying to find a way into Fabio, but these Santeria worshippers with their kilos and their white clothing and their pretty girl were going at the wrong guy. Fabio had saved me from the streets of Little Havana. He gave me a job. He paid me good money. He trusted me. There was no way I was ever going to betray him.

Ah, Blanca! She was so beautiful, but she was so bad.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Miami Freeze Video

Tom Wallace:

Moisés and I are in the process of building up our platform. In case you’re not familiar with the book publishing business, platform is the industry term for the ability of an author (or authors, in this case) to reach out to ready-made buyers of the book. Obviously, this blog is part of that, and we appreciate those of you who have contacted us—by leaving comments on the blog and our Facebook pages, and by personal email—to let us know that you’re interested in reading Miami Freeze, the book.

Videos are another plank in that platform. In this blog post, we present the first of several videos. In the weeks and months to come, you’ll get to see and hear Moisés, as he discusses the experiences that changed his life for those several years covered in the book, beginning in 1980. We also hope to travel to South Florida together to give you a tour of the places where much of the action in the book takes place.

Feel free to leave comments or send us emails to let us know how you like this first video. And stay tuned for more.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cocaine Cowboys and I

As Tom and I work on writing this book, and more people find out about my former life in Miami, they ask me about the documentary, Cocaine Cowboys. They want to know two things. First, was life in Miami really like that back in the 80s?

The answer is, yes. The documentary begins with a re-enactment of the Dadeland Mall massacre to let you know what’s coming. Then it switches gears to tell the story of Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday, just a couple of fun loving adventurers who made tons of money. (Dadeland, by the way, happened the year before I got to Miami, but more about that kind of thing in a minute.) By the time you get through seeing how Roberts and Munday set up their operations, you’ve almost forgotten about Dadeland. The film lulls the viewer into feeling that the cocaine business was just one big, fun party.

It was fun. Where there’s coke and money, there’s a party. I didn’t make anything like the $100 million Jon Roberts claims to have earned. But my boss paid me well to make deliveries. And the documentary was certainly accurate in its depiction of how deals went down. That part of the business was pretty straightforward. I never felt I was in danger when making a delivery. I never felt at risk, either from business associates or cops. My boss would hand me a set of keys and tell me where to drive the car. That was it. I never knew what was in the car. (I mean, of course I knew what was in the car, but he never said anything about it.) During the deliveries, there were never any guns, or test tubes, or suspicion anywhere along the way. We were all part of the same organization. It really and truly was just business. Like delivering a truck load of TVs to Sears.

And I never handled any money. That was all taken care of separately. The only money I touched during the deals was the money my boss paid me for the work I did. And it was a lot. But I did things on the side that earned me twice what I got for deliveries. And that’s where things got ugly. That’s what you see in the second half of Cocaine Cowboys. Don’t get me wrong. I never killed anybody, but I saw people shot to death in the streets of Miami, and there were a number of attempts made on my life. How many? I guess that depends on how you count.

A guy put three bullets through my windshield one day. I think that counts. Three guys beat me half to death in the elevator of a condo in Palm Beach. Were they trying to kill me? Felt like it. Four guys tied me up and put me under an upside down boat on a beach in the Bahamas. I was sure they intended to come back for me at night and kill me. I was chased on foot through the streets of Little Havana by a guy with a shotgun. I had guns pointed at me on a number of other occasions. And even some of that was fun. I know it sounds crazy, but when you combine the adrenaline of being shot at with the elation of coming out of it without a scratch, you get a feeling like no manufactured drug can deliver. But I also still have nightmares about those experiences.

Would I go back to those times? No. Everything in those days was me, me, me. And in the process of pursuing what was best for me, I lost myself. The money? Yeah, it would be nice to have some of that back. In fact, there’s still a guy out there somewhere who owes me a bunch of money for unloading a plane in Pahokee, up near Lake Okechobee. He was a big importer. He could afford to pay me. But he went to prison. You see? It all comes tumbling down eventually.

And there’s another question people always want to ask me about Cocaine Cowboys. Did I know all the people in the film? No. Here’s the thing. The coke business in Miami was huge. I guess Jon Roberts was the biggest, but there were lots of people bringing in coke, and thousands of people distributing it at various levels. I worked for a guy who wasn’t as big as Roberts, but he did very well for himself. He lived in a huge house in Kendall (which, by the way, is the location of the infamous Dadeland Mall, not Miami).

I never knew Jon Roberts. I knew people who knew Mickey Munday, but I never met him myself. Thankfully, I never knew Griselda Blanco, the godmother, who was responsible for many killings in the Miami area, including Dadeland. I knew Rafa, the Colombian distributor who first brought Jon Roberts into the really big time. And I knew Rivi Ayala, the killer who worked for Griselda Blanco. We didn’t hang out together, but I was around him a bit. We did time together, before he was charged with all those murders. It wasn’t until I saw Cocaine Cowboys that I learned how bad a guy he really was.

Those were the days. For good and for bad. They were the days when two drugs ruled Miami: cocaine and adrenaline. And they are, thankfully, in my past. I don’t do coke anymore. And my biggest adrenaline rushes are in my nightmares.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Conversation with Moisés Alburquerque

Tom Wallace: You had a number of positive experiences in the US after you arrived in the Mariel boatlift, but eventually you wound up homeless.

Moisés: Right, I was living on the streets of Little Havana for a while. I lived under an overpass.

Tom: What kind of place was Little Havana at the time?

Moisés: [Laughs] Not a very good one. It was bad in those days, Tom. A very violent and dangerous place. It was the place where a lot of those guys from the Cuban prisons ended up. You know, Ariza prison, Boniato, Combinado del Este… There are a lot of prisons in Cuba. And these guys—they acted like they were still in prison. They still had that mentality. If they didn’t like somebody, they wanted to stab him, or beat him up, or kill him, just like they would have done in prison. It was dangerous.

Tom: So to be homeless there—

Moisés: Yeah, to be homeless in Little Havana in the ‘80s was really bad. I mean, if you could go inside and lock your door, at least that was something. But to be homeless… You just had to be right out there with everybody.

Tom: Why did you stay there?

Moisés: The same reason those bad guys stayed there. That was our community. We knew the language, the food, the customs. You know, that was Cuba. That was our place. You bump up against another person in the street, you bump up against Cuba. We didn’t come here because we hate Cuba. We love Cuba. But we hate what happened to Cuba. We wanted to be—we wanted to embrace Cuba. And Little Havana was Cuba, or as close as we could make it.

Tom: But was that place dangerous for you personally?

Moisés: Yes, of course. Tom—listen, I’m 5’5” and 125 pounds. What do you think? [Laughs] Yeah, some of those bad guys thought I would be easy to push around.

Tom: Were you?

Moisés: I mean, they were bigger than me, but I stood up for myself. As a teenager I studied boxing and martial arts, but just for sport, you know. Just for recreation. But, yeah, I could stand up for myself. But the streets were full of predators. It was like being in a pool with a bunch of sharks. In that time I was always, always, always alert. I always paid attention to everything that was going on around me. I knew who was walking across the street, what cars were driving by, what the guys on the corner were saying to each other, when somebody raised his voice, when there was somebody walking behind me... All the time. You had to know the temperature of the neighborhood at every moment if you were going to survive.

Tom: How did the experience of being homeless in that time and place change you?

Moisés: I was tough enough to take care of myself, but being there made me tougher. It was like—if you go to prison, you have to become tough so the others in there don’t take advantage of you. So, I had to deal with those bad guys and become more like them. I had to imitate the way they handled themselves. I just didn’t take nothing from nobody.

Tom: Was there a turning point at which you realized you were as tough as them, or was it a gradual change?

Moisés: Mmm… Yeah, gradual. But if I had to pick a single event… There was one night something happened.

Tom: Tell me about that.

Moisés: I was lying down trying to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. It was hard to sleep in that place. And I could hear somebody coming up close to me from behind. I was laying on my side. So, I knew he was trying to do something, because why do you walk up on a homeless man sleeping under an overpass. He wasn’t coming to throw me a party. So I just pretended to be asleep until he got right up on me. Then I jumped up and turned around to grab him. Well, he had a gun pointed right at me, but I was in attack mode at that moment, so I just grabbed the gun from him.

Tom: You grabbed his gun?

Moisés: [Laughing] I grabbed it right out of his hand. He was trying to take whatever I had. Well, I didn’t have much, but I turned the gun on him and told him to give me what he had. I got fifteen dollars from him.

Tom: You took his gun and his money.

Moisés: Oh, yeah. I got him good. I went to a friend of mine who was homeless there and told him what happened and I said, “Come with me. I’m going to buy us something. We’re going to eat good tonight.” So, we went to a restaurant and ate. We felt very good.

Tom: Are you a badass?

Moisés: Now? No. At that time I transformed myself into a badass to survive. If you asked people from that time and place, “Was Moisés a badass?” They would tell you that I was. But now I just want to take care of my family. Now, if somebody tried to come into my home and hurt by kids or my wife—they’d find out they’re messing with the wrong guy. But I don’t think that way about the world around me anymore. I live in a nice, quiet neighborhood and I have good neighbors, and I just want my kids to be happy and have fun.

Tom: But back then you were that way out of necessity.

Moisés: Right. Now everything is about taking care of my family. Back then it was all about taking care of me.

Tom: And after you’d been homeless for a while, something happened.

Moisés: Yeah, I was just hanging out one day and a car came to a screeching stop right next to me. And I thought there was going to be some trouble. This guy jumps out of the car and yells my name. It took a minute, but I figured out it was an old friend of mine from Cuba. He didn’t like that I was living that way. He was shocked. So he said he knew somebody I could do some work for. And I could be making good money.

Tom: That must have sounded good to you at that moment.

Moisés: [Laughs] That sounded very good. I said, “Yeah, I want to make some money and get out of this situation." I was living by my wits from minute to minute. I was exhausted by all that stuff.

Tom: So who was the guy your friend introduced you to?

Moisés: He was a guy called Fabio—a Colombian guy. He was connected to the Medellin cartel. A big guy.

Tom: And your life changed pretty significantly at that point.

Moisés: Yeah. That was the beginning of something. That’s for sure.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Out of Cuba Part Two

Chamizo and I sat together on the military bus going to Havana for the boatlift. We thought it was going to be smooth sailing to America, but we didn’t understand all that we’d have to pass through to arrive there. We had our first indication before the bus had even left our hometown of Cienfuegos when it pulled up outside of Ariza Prison. The doors opened and the bus filled with the kind of men we’d never been around before. They had prison tattoos and bore scars that looked like they might have come from being stabbed. These were hard guys—murders, rapists, all kinds of violent criminals—sitting among the good people of Cienfuegos who only wanted something better for themselves. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that to Castro, we were all the same—bad Cubans who were not serving La Revolución.

At 4:00 a.m. we arrived at a sports arena in the capitol. This, we were told, would be our home until we were assigned to a boat. Of course, with so many criminals among us, our encampment had to be guarded by soldiers with AK-47s and German Shepherds. Chamizo and I didn’t care about that. We didn’t want to go anywhere in Cuba except Mariel Harbor. But it soon became apparent that the Cuban government lacked either the ability, or the desire to feed us all. For three days we didn’t eat so much as a snack. My military training had taught me how to survive on little or no food for long periods. But Chamizo, my good friend, was younger than me, and had no such training. He was getting weak.

Someone up above must have been looking out for us, because on the forth day, I found forty Cuban pesos on the ground. I don’t want to calculate the chances of that happening in such a den of murderers and thieves, but it did. Now the problem was how to spend it. Not what to spend it on, but literally how to do it. One more thing the military taught me was how to move about undetected, stay hidden, evade enemy soldiers—American soldiers. And even though the men who guarded us at that time were Cubans, they were my enemy in my quest to get myself and my friend to America alive.

I went to Chamizo, who by this time was listless. I told him I was going to escape from the camp, buy food for both of us, and sneak back in with it. To my dear friend, it was a suicide mission. Even if the guards didn’t see me, the dogs would smell me. And even if they didn’t smell me on the way out, they would surely smell the food I intended to have with me when I came back. He begged me not to go.

I didn’t hesitate. I might make it a few more days without food, but Chamizo would soon fall terribly ill. As soon as I was out of sight of the guards, I started running. I didn’t know my way around Havana, but I simply followed my nose. There was food somewhere, and I would find it. After about six blocks I found myself at the baseball stadium. There was a game in progress and the concession stands were open. In another time, I would have loved to come to Havana to see a baseball game, but now I had no time for diversions.

I looked at the menu on the wall. Ham and cheese sandwiches seemed nutritious and cheap. When I asked how many of them I could get for forty pesos, the lady behind the counter looked at me like I was crazy. Impatient, I slapped the money down on the counter and insisted she give me as many sandwiches as she could. A couple of minutes later, I was running back to my prison with a bag full of thirty sandwiches. I snuck back in, pulled Chamizo into as private a corner as we could find, and we ate a few sandwiches each, determined to hide the rest and ration them for as long as we could.

Four days later, having survived only on our sandwiches, we climbed aboard an old, rusted shrimp boat named the Alba Junior with as many other souls as she could hold. We were pressed together with the old and the young, men and women, kids, babies, and the bad guys with all their tattoos and scars. But even at such close quarters, as we left Mariel Harbor I felt alone in my thoughts, watching the only land I’d ever known disappear in the wake of the boat.

I came to America thirty years ago to make a bigger, better life for myself. And after all I’ve been through, my roots are still there in Cienfuegos, Cuba with my father and my sisters, and beside my mother’s grave.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Out of Cuba Part One

[Look below to see the Spanish translation]

I’m guessing few Americans understand the reaction of pro-Castro Cubans to the Mariel boatlift. They had no problem with their leader filling the streets of Miami with Cuban prisoners and misfits. Murderers and other violent criminals, prostitutes, the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped weren’t serving La Revolución. But I was not one of those. I was a good kid, well known and well respected around my neighborhood in the quiet, lovely colonial town of Cienfuegos, the place we called “The Pearl of the South.” I’d never been in any kind of trouble, I’d done well in my military service, and on the eve of the boatlift, I had been chosen to travel to East Berlin to learn how to use wheat processing machinery that would help produce food for Cuba. My neighbors loved me. I was a fine, upstanding young man, an example to the community. I was going places. But when my friend, Chamizo, and I learned about the boatlift, there was only one place we wanted to go.

Chamizo came to my house on April 20, 1980 and asked me if I was aware of what was happening in Havana. Yes, I was aware. But I told him to say nothing in my house, and that we should go to the park where it would be easier for us to talk. It was a sensitive topic.

When we got to the park, we agreed that we would go to Havana and try to get into the Peruvian embassy, the place where those leaving in the boatlift had gathered. We did go, but we didn’t have much luck. They had closed the doors and were not admitting anyone.

That was bad enough, but when I got back to Cienfugos, things took a turn for the worse. I was walking in the square when I ran into my girlfriend. She had heard that I’d gone to Havana, and she new the reason for my trip. She let me know that she was not happy. She began to call everyone in the neighborhood and tell them what had happened. Immediately everyone came out of their homes and cornered me in my house. They began something that had become commonplace in Cuba as the boatlift took shape.

They were called acts of repudiation. Pro-Castro people sought to punish those who wanted to turn their backs on Cuba. The neighbors who had once seen me as such a good kid and great example, now saw me in a different light. They began to shout at me and insult me in any way they could. But these acts of repudiation frequently didn’t stop at verbal insults. I’d seen people beaten, sometimes very badly.

I was terrified. When I heard the anger in the voices of the neighbors who had once loved me, I knew they wouldn’t hesitate to hurt me. But I was scared, too, for my father—a hard working man who did his best to teach me, even though he wasn’t home much—and my four sisters—maternal figures in my life since my mother died when I was twelve. I couldn’t let anything happen to my family.

The only sort of weapon I could put my hands on in the house was a machete. I told my father that I didn’t want to hurt anyone, but if people broke into the house, I would do what I had to do.

The neighbors yelled and threw things at the house for six days. I hadn't cut my hair since I'd gotten out of the Army several months earlier. My neighbors began to chant:

“Moisés, you long-hair you!
Get yourself to Peru!”

If I was no longer a good Cuban, they wanted me gone, but before I left, they wanted to hurt me, to punish me for betraying La Revolución.

Finally a military bus came through the neighborhood to collect people for the boatlift. But it didn’t come to my front door. To get to it, I had to run. I had to run as fast as I could and be as nimble as possible, to slip past my neighbors.

So, when I left home, I left running. Had you asked me at that time, I would have said—happily, foolishly—that it was the last time I’d be running in fear.