MIAMI – More than a quarter century after his indictment as one of Miami's notorious "cocaine cowboys," Gustavo Falcon stood handcuffed and shackled in front of a judge Thursday morning and pleaded guilty.
"I understand," Falcon repeatedly answered as U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno explained the consequences of his decision.
He is the last in the group of eight indicted in 1991, led by his brother Willie Falcon and partner Sal Magluta, who commandeered a cocaine syndicate prosecutors called "an extraordinarily prolific cocaine organization" throughout the 1980s.
Falcon, 56, who had been known by the nickname Tabby, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, though the plea accounts for far less cocaine than was actually distributed. Prosecutors estimated the group smuggled 75 tons of cocaine into the United States over 13 years, collected more than $2 billion in cash and assets, and lived the high-life while Miami deteriorated into violent drug wars.
Shortly after it was unsealed in 1991, Falcon and his wife fled. They stayed on the lam for 26 years.
Last April, U.S. marshals discovered he and his wife had obtained fraudulent Florida drivers licenses in 1997, under the names Luis and Maria Reiss, and traced them to a rental property near Orlando, where they were living with their son David and daughter Jennifer. Marshals arrested them as the couple returned from a bicycle ride.
Per the terms of the plea agreement, Falcon's wife and children will not be prosecuted for crimes including harboring a fugitive, accessories after-the-fact and obstruction of justice.
"You can tell that ... it was very important for Mr. Falcon that he accept responsibility, and he alone accept responsibility, for his absence from the jurisdiction for the last 26 years," his attorney, Howard Srebnick, told Local 10 News.
Falcon will be compelled to tell prosecutors what has become of the case and assets from the criminal enterprise over the last 26 years.
Moreno, presiding over Falcon's change of plea, can sentence Falcon up to 20 years in prison for his one count. In his legal favor, he is not charged with any of the cocaine syndicate's violence or possessing weapons.
"I had forgotten about this case until they seized you," Moreno said. "I have no idea what I'm going to do."
Sentencing is scheduled for April 11 at 10 a.m.
Falcon's brother had pleaded guilty in a deal, served prison time and was released last summer. He is currently in federal immigration custody; he in a Cuban native, having never become a U.S. citizen.
His partner Magluta, who went to trial and was convicted, is serving a 195-year sentence.