May 9, 2018

Jorge Cabrera grew up in the Upper Keys, becoming successful in several lines of business. One of those was smuggling massive amounts of marijuana and cocaine. Those days are gone, he says.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Jorge Cabrera grew up in the Upper Keys, becoming successful in several lines of business. One of those was smuggling massive amounts of marijuana and cocaine. Those days are gone, he says.

ISLAMORADA — At the time, Jorge Cabrera recalls, smuggling bales of marijuana into the Florida Keys seemed like “just another business.”

A family-run trucking firm “had the contract to bring down fill when they were building the new bridges” in the 1970s, Cabrera described last week.

Money was tight, said Cabrera, who grew up in Islamorada and studied at Coral Shores High School. After his 1995 arrest, he would attend class again, in federal prison while serving a 15-year sentence before his 2010 release.

The days when he had a penthouse in Bogota, Colombia, and met with Pablo Escobar and other leaders of the MedellĂ­n Cartel, are long gone. 

The smuggling “is over,” he said. “Everybody from the government came down. If they caught me now, I’d get life.  I can’t do that.”

Cabrera now speaks openly about the wild years when the Keys served as a conduit for illicit narcotics and many locals got in on the action. 

“I got to see my kids twice in 15 years” while in federal custody, Cabrera said. “Now I want a way to explain to them that I didn’t abandon them. I had to leave for 15 years.”

“It was a different world back then, and I got to see everything,” he said. “… I sat down with the biggest of the bosses. I met Pablo and pretty much all of them. But I didn’t hurt anybody.”

“The History of Drug Smuggling in the Florida Keys,” a benefit dinner featuring Cabrera and hosted by the Matecumbe Historical Trust and Islamorada Moose Lodge on Wednesday, May 9, sold out the event’s 90 tickets, at $50 each, with virtually no advertising, trust President Barbara Edgar said. A second event may be held later this year.

“We thought about whether the topic was appropriate,” Edgar said. “But the fact is that drug smuggling is a part of Florida Keys history. It happened.”

Cabrera, 61, was six months old when his family arrived from Cuba. 

“My dad was a plasterer and tile-setter. He could do anything,” he said. “We lived in an Airstream trailer in the parking lot of Sid and Roxie’s Seafood Cannery, now the Islamorada Fish Company. When I was young, Dad told me he could put a roof over our heads and see that we had food and clothing, but he couldn’t afford the extras.

“So I started washing dishes at Manny and Isa’s Restaurant when I was 9. Later I went to work at the Trading Post. This was just an American kid.”

In the mid-1970s, his mother ran a Key Largo restaurant that served “the only Cuban coffee between Miami and Key West.”

Smugglers from the mainland — “the big boys,” Cabrera described — were regular customers. When they learned the Cabreras had big trucks driving back to Homestead empty, they were intrigued. Soon the fill trucks had a return load: bales smuggled into the Keys via the Bahamas. 

“The smuggling started in 1976 to ‘77. It was just another business,” Cabrera said. “It happened over several years. It was civilized without killing anybody. [The smugglers] liked me because I was legit.”

It did not then seem like a major crime, he rationalized. Growing up at the fish house that specialized in processing green sea turtles, Cabrera “ate a lot of turtle; turtle eggs for breakfast and turtle steaks for dinner.”  

When sea turtles came under federal protection in the 1970s, a turtle poacher faced higher penalties than a marijuana smuggler, Cabrera said. 

“Well, there were no cattle in the Keys,” he said, “so we never completely stopped eating turtle.”

The Florida Keys have a long history of maritime miscreants, from accounts of dubious shipwreckers to rumrunners during Prohibition, he said. 

“It’s the way things were. I’m not saying it was good or bad. They were doing it to support their families,” Cabrera said. “When I was 7 years old, I helped load machine guns onto my uncle’s boat to be smuggled back to Cuba to fight Castro.” 

Bringing in a sizable load of marijuana typically involved transferring the 40-pound bales from small ships or shrimp boats onto wide-hulled working boats that made the final run into remote Keys shorelines. 

“Then you had 50 or 75 people to offload it,” Cabrera said. “You needed so many people.”

As law enforcement cracked down on large marijuana shipments in the 1980s, smugglers shifted their focus to cocaine.

“With cocaine, you could bring in 500 kilos on a plane, do a drop to a boat with two people on board, and make triple the money,” Cabrera said. 

“I wasn’t a guy who sold cocaine from a store. I sold it to five guys who were friends of mine,” he said. “Now look around at all the addicts from ‘legal’ pills.”

Cabrera says his experience was much different than Hollywood’s portrayals of drug smuggling.

“In my own experience, the only real truth in the ‘Scarface’ movie was where people were bringing bags of cash into the banks. That happened,” he said. “I was like the golden boy. They knew what was going on.”

Drug money “was everywhere and nobody complained. Everybody played along.”

Cabrera’s 21-year run as a smuggler ended when federal agents tracked a large shipment of cocaine — hundreds of kilos — from the Keys to a Coconut Grove warehouse. He was arrested with several other defendants and eventually pleaded guilty.

“I always had mentors as a Keys kid, growing up around the older Bubbas,” Cabrera said. “I was so high up [in the drug business], I didn’t have any mentors. There was no one to give me advice. I reached the top, and I think that’s when God pulled me in. It was like He said, ‘It’s time to put Jorge on ice.’”

While in prison, Cabrera took classes in ceramics and computer software design. “I wound up teaching both those classes,” he said with a smile.

Now Cabrera’s focus is on his Plantation Key cardboard-recycling operation, and other local business interests.

“I think the happiest time of my life was living in that camper at Sid and Roxie’s,” he said.