4 exiles sent to prison in smuggling scheme
By Jay Ducassi
Herald Staff Writer
Four Cuban exiles were sentenced to prison terms Thursday for their roles in a smuggling scheme that allegedly involved using Cuba as a staging area to ship marijuana and Quaaludes to South Florida.
U.S. District Judge Joe Eaton sentenced Alberto Cortez and Jose Rafael Martinez to eight years in prison. Jorge Felipe Llerena received a seven-year sentence.
Hector Gonzalez Quiñones also drew a seven-year term, which Eaton said would run concurrently with the 18 years Gonzalez still has to serve on unrelated convictions.
"The sentences were appropriate," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie, one of two prosecutors in the case.
Witnesses in the three-week trial said Quiñones, Martinez, Llerena and others -- with the aid of four high-ranking Cuban government officials -- made drug pickups off the northern coast of Cuba.
According to testimony, more than 10 million methaqualone (Quaalude) tablets and 23,000 pounds of marijuana were picked up from a "mother ship" off Paredon Grande Key in Cuba, with the protection of the Cuban navy.
The drugs were offloaded into small speedboats and brought to South Florida. The marijuana, witnesses said, was stored at Cortez's five-acre farm in Homestead.
Though indicted, the Cuban officials--Aldo Santamaria Cuadrado, Rene Rodriguez Cruz, Fernando Ravelo Renedo and Gonzalo Bassols Suarez--were never brought to , trial because the Cuban government has no extradition treaty with the United States.
The Cuban government vehemently denied that the four officials were involved in any smuggling activities.
During the sentencing Thursday, Martinez--a short, thin man with gold-rimmed glasses --looked at his wife in the audience and told Eaton: "I want to let my wife and son know that I've never been a traitor to my country."
The key testimony in the February trial came from a self-labeled "Cuban spy," who said he took part in the operation under orders from the Cuban intelligence agency, and from a confessed smuggler who turned government informant.
A fifth man convicted in the case, Jose Martinez Valdes, is scheduled to be sentenced Monday.