The barrel is aimed at portly, bespectacled, 52-year-old George Villegas. Villegas is in an elevator in Coral Gables. It’s 7:43 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2012. Behind him are two rolling suitcases weighing 110 pounds and containing $2.8 million dollars worth of “popcorn” Bolivian gold that he plans to take to Republic Metals in Opa-locka. The elevator doors open to reveal three men. One, Raonel Valdez, is holding a gun.
“We’re here for the gold,” Valdez says in Spanish, sticking the pistol in Villegas' face as he talks. But Villegas grabs the gun, squeezing his forefinger into the space between the pistol’s cocked hammer and firing pin, just as Valdez pulls the trigger.
The hammer mangles Villegas’ finger, yet the flesh is enough to keep the gun from firing, saving the gold courier’s life. It’s not enough to save the gold. Valdez pushes Villegas to the floor. The two other men grab the suitcases and dash into a nearby car operated by an accomplice. Around the corner, another man, driving a look-out car, makes good his escape as well.
This scene, based on court records and interviews with David Bolton, a private investigator who spent years tracking the thieves down, remains the largest gold heist in Florida history.
And yet a review of seven separate federal court cases, along with interviews with victims, private detectives, and current and former federal agents, shows that the gold heist is just one of a litany of crimes perpetrated by a larger, incredibly dangerous and highly sophisticated criminal syndicate.
Attorneys for Valdez declined to comment about the heist. George Villegas died in 2013. His cousin, Guy Vargas, the original owner of the stolen gold, said the last year of his life was spent in fear of the syndicate.
Homeland Security investigators call the group — which currently has at least 20 members in federal prison — The El Jabao Organization. Jabao is a Spanish Caribbean slang term for a person of mixed race, commonly used on the islands. Some in the United States may find the term offensive.
Operating between the jurisdictions of the United States, Cuba and Mexico, authorities suspect the El Jabao Organization of orchestrating thefts, armed robberies and murders. Its members have been charged in federal court with home invasions, kidnappings, human smuggling, money laundering, extortion and drug smuggling.
Preying on the vulnerable
The full extent of the El Jabao Organization’s criminal activities are still not public. It’s unclear how many members the gang has in total or what percentage of them are behind bars. Anthony Salisbury, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, said, “The investigation is still ongoing.”
“El Jabao is involved in the gold thing,” Salisbury said, “but I would say they are predominantly a human smuggling, human trafficking organization that looks to exploit and prey on the vulnerabilities of the people they smuggle for their own gain.”
Authorities say that, over the past decade, the organization has smuggled thousands of Cubans seeking freedom to the United States via Mexico. Some of the Cubans were allegedly raped, tortured or sold into indentured labor or sexual slavery when they couldn’t pay the syndicates' transit fees, according to court documents.
Now, with a portion of the group behind bars, Salisbury wants to get the word out to any potential smuggling and trafficking victims who might be out there. “We certainly want the victims to come forward. We do believe there are other victims out there, and we want to see if there’s anything we can do to help them.”
According to Bolton, at least one of the gang’s senior leaders is still on the run.
A society of criminals
Former federal agents who have investigated the El Jabao Organization liken the group to a Caribbean Cosa Nostra, a tight-knit, secret society of lawless criminals who share a common code of honor and conduct, yet lack a clear hierarchical structure, instead coming together to complete jobs as needed.
Bolton, the private detective, says the gang’s members all come from the same suburb of Havana, Cuba: Santiago de las Vegas. Court records show that most of the gang immigrated to the United States after spending their youth in Cuba.
“Anytime anybody called for a serious crime they were available to do it,” said Jim Shedd, a former Drug Enforcement Administration officer who has investigated the group. Shedd said the group’s “organized, disorganized” structure has frustrated investigators for decades. “These were not linear organizations.”
The fluid structure and international reach make the El Jabao Organization significantly different from the vast and highly regimented Cuban-American mafia once headed by the late Jose Miguel Battle Sr.
Battle, a former policeman and Bay of Pigs veteran, built a top-down crime empire fueled mainly by illegal gambling and protection rackets. His organization was largely dismantled by the feds in the mid-2000s.
The El Jabao Organization, court records show, is fueled by the enduring desire of some Cubans to flee the island’s totalitarian dictatorship and the willingness of other Cubans to profit off their countrymen’s dreams of freedom.
Ruled at the top
At least three of the gang’s senior leaders have been identified by investigators and in court records.
Square-jawed, clear-eyed George Ferrer Sanchez, alias “el Jabao," gives the gang its name. Court documents paint him as a criminal mastermind with a tragic past. Letters written by his family members at his 2019 federal sentencing for money laundering say he grew up in a single-parent household until his mother committed suicide when he was 21. Sanchez then shelved his dreams of becoming a professional ballplayer in order to raise his three orphan siblings.
At some point in the late ’90s, Sanchez, in letters to the federal judge who sentenced him to nine years in prison for money laundering, says he came to the United States on a raft. In 2006, court records show, he fled to Mexico after being charged with attempted murder in Miami-Dade County. He admitted to the federal judge that trafficking humans was his way of life while in Mexico, calling himself a “sinner and a smuggler." It’s unclear when he returned to the United States, but when he did, he set up a pressure cleaning business, bought a bakery in Miramar and continued to quietly profit from his trade in human flesh, according to documents filed alongside his plea of guilt.
Tomas Vale Valdivia, 45, known as Tomasito, is the second senior member of the gang currently behind bars. Well-built, with close-set eyes and close-cropped hair, Valdivia personally transported Yasiel Puig off the island of Cuba via go-fast boat in October 2013, according to court documents and reporting by Sports Illustrated.
Bolton, who spent years investigating the gang, says that Valdivia "was one of the heads of the snake in Mexico. He ruled Isla de Mujeres for human smuggling.” Valdivia is serving a four-year, eight-month sentence for conspiracy to commit human smuggling after being arrested and extradited from Mexico in 2018.
Attorneys for Valdivia declined to comment.
Little is known about the man Bolton identifies as the third leader of the gang, except that he is hiding in Mexico and that he was allegedly involved in both the gold heist and the baseball player smuggling. He is not identified here because he has not been indicted.
South Florida ties
A series of arrests made by federal officials last week indicates that parts of the gang are still active.
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LastWednesday, Reynaldo Marquez Crespo, 41, and Jancer Sergio Ramos Valdes, 33, whom federal agents say were members of the El Jabao organization, appeared in Fort Lauderdale federal court on charges of human smuggling and kidnapping at least three victims during January 2019. If convicted, they face up to 30 years in federal prison.
Crespo and Valdes are accused of using go-fast boats to smuggle Cubans migrants across the Yucatan straits. Those migrants were secreted into hideouts on the Yucatan Peninsula and then beaten and tortured, prosecutors say. Victims heard traffickers boasting of raping female migrants and selling them into sexual slavery. The families of the migrants — many who live in South Florida — were forced to pay up to $10,000 dollars a head lest their kin be starved, electrocuted or beaten, according to a federal criminal affidavit.
Attornies for Crespo and Valdes declined to comment.
Bolton says he’s fascinated by the gang. His work led to the capture of gold thief Raonel Valdez Valhuerdis at a remote crossing on the Belizean border after the thief had spent a year on the lam in Mexico and Central America.
“The level of violence they were willing to use, the frequency they were willing to use it, and the fact that they’d be communicating with agents from the DEA one day, the next day the Zetas, the next day they’d be planning a gold heist? It’s unbelievable,” Bolton said.