Dealers-turned-crusaders tear up drug underworld Testimony helps get more than 40 convictions

November 27, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI -- When Roberto Rodriguez was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1989, apparently ending his reign as one of Los Angeles' premier cocaine dealers, a federal judge in Los Angeles gave the Cuban immigrant 30 days to get his affairs in order.

That month became nearly a decade.

Rodriguez jumped bond and headed south, embarking on an odyssey through the drug underworld of the Americas that made him a target of hit men in Los Angeles and Detroit, a drug supplier for street gangs in Chicago, Detroit and New York and a partner and friend to leaders of the Cali cocaine cartel in Colombia.

Before it ended this year on witness stands and in debriefing rooms in four U.S. cities, that long journey through drug land for Rodriguez and his Cuban-born stepbrother, Osvaldo Marcial, also exposed official corruption in several U.S. cities.

Their testimony revealed the dark double lives of corrupt police in suburban Michigan, a middle-school vice principal dealing crack cocaine in South Florida and a former federal prosecutor who crossed the line for his cocaine overlords in Miami. It also led to charges against two prominent businessmen in the Dominican Republic accused of laundering cocaine profits.

In all, court documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times show that these two brothers and Mark Minelli, the Drug Enforcement Administration special agent who won their trust, account for more than 40 convictions of major drug dealers and the officials who protected them in Chicago, Detroit, New York and Miami.

In the more than 18 months since Rodriguez joined his brother in secretly working for Minelli and the DEA, their undercover

operations led to the seizure of nearly $3 million in drug money, aircraft worth $3 million and cocaine worth $12 million. Their cooperation also helped solve a gangland slaying in Chicago and an attempted murder in Los Angeles.

In short, the three men quietly became a wrecking crew against the Colombian cartel's distributors and protectors in the United States, and exposed the depth and reach of cocaine corruption in U.S. society.

The array of cases prosecuted with the help of the three men are "a disturbing example of how the drug trade permeates every level of our society, corrupting even those who we trust most," said Vincent J. Mazzilli, chief of the DEA's Miami office.

The court documents in these cases, culled from federal courthouses in the United States and their counterpart in the Dominican Republic, also tell the story of a unique friendship between hunter and hunted at the front line of the U.S. war on drugs.

The brothers have told their story separately and in detail under oath during trials this year in Miami and Detroit. Those details were also confirmed in testimony by Minelli, who has supervised the brothers since they switched sides in the drug war.

Marcial testified at a trial in Miami in January that, unlike his brother, he had immigrated to Los Angeles illegally -- a yearlong journey from Havana through Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico that cost $4,000 before he crossed the U.S. border at Tijuana in 1987.

Marcial stated that Rodriguez started him in the drug business soon after, and he moved up through the ranks as his brother rose in stature with the Colombian and Mexican cartels that ship cocaine into the United States.

The brothers later testified that their key contacts were in Mexico, Chicago, New York and Miami. Those contacts were so powerful that the U.S. government has spent more than $150,000 relocating at least 41 members of Rodriguez's family from California and Colombia, according to court documents.

Rodriguez testified that the family members received death threats after the brothers began cooperating with drug enforcement agents after Marcial's capture in May 1995. Marcial was arrested, along with four other people, while delivering 30 pounds of cocaine to a suburban Miami apartment complex.

Through it all, the brothers later testified, official corruption was the subtext that allowed their smuggling operations to flourish.

Marcial helped federal authorities win a guilty plea to drug conspiracy charges from his prominent Miami defense lawyer, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Burnbaum.

Marcial, who testified that his attorney's actions helped persuade him to cooperate with the DEA, also went undercover earlier this year to expose drug trafficking by Willie Young, who was vice principal of a middle school in Miami at the time. Marcial was the key witness in September against Young, whom he described as a buyer and seller of cocaine, before a federal jury that convicted Young of drug trafficking.

It was Marcial's elder brother who helped prosecutors win the federal case against the four police officers in suburban Detroit. Such cases, U.S. authorities say, are among the most difficult forms of official drug corruption to expose because the lawbreakers are also the law enforcers. The accused ranged in ** rank from sergeant to deputy chief.

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