united states project

Inside the Sun Sentinel‘s investigation on Cuban criminals

South Florida paper combined database work with shoe-leather reporting for a big story
January 13, 2015

MIAMI — Last year, reporters at the South Florida Sun Sentinel set out to prove a dirty little secret: Cuban criminals are exploiting the extraordinarily broad immigration privileges that apply to their nation to run elaborate fraud schemes in the US and then escape back to the island. 

After cracking a pair of key databases, reporters at the paper were finally able to show the rumors were true—even more true, in fact, than they had anticipated.

“Cuba has become a bedroom community for criminals who exploit America’s good will,” the Sun Sentinel wrote in an impressive three-part investigation rolled out last week.

The first story, by reporters Sally Kestin, Megan O’Matz, and Tracey Eaton and data editor John Maines, includes lots of the shoe-leather reporting big investigations require. Kestin and O’Matz pored over court records to find evidence that the men and women running cargo theft rings, health care fraud scams, and networks of marijuana grow houses were from Cuba. Eaton, a freelancer, tracked down fugitives who had escaped to Cuba.

But the real coup in this investigation is the database work that shows that for certain categories of arrest, Cubans vastly outnumber all other foreign nationals. In Florida, for two types of crime, they even far outnumber native-born Americans: Though Cuban-born people make up 4 percent of the state’s population, they represent 72 percent of all federal cargo theft arrests, and 72 percent of all federal healthcare fraud arrests, according to the Sun Sentinel’s analysis.

The Sun Sentinel rightly noted that the Miami Herald had investigated health care fraud committed by Cuban nationals several years ago. But the Miami paper was never able to nail down the full extent of the problem. (I worked at the Herald at the time, though not on that project.)

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The scope surprised the Sun Sentinel reporters, even after they had spent months conducting interviews and combing through state and federal records.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Maines told me. “The cops had told us and the prosecutors had told us, but the numbers surprised us.”

The numbers come from two sets of records: booking data of all arrests maintained by the Department of Justice—which, according to the Sun Sentinel, had never before been made public in that form—and federal court information maintained by National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, housed at the University of Michigan’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. The former showed place of birth for individuals arrested on federal charges. The latter included restitution information, allowing the paper to estimate that Cuban criminals have stolen more than $2 billion from taxpayers and businesses.

The Sun Sentinel also explained how the unique status of Cubans in the United States facilitates organized criminal activity. The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed 50 years ago, allows Cubans to enter the United States without background checks and even allows them to periodically return to Cuba—something that would compromise political asylum claims for people of other nationalities. 

The vast majority of Cubans who immigrate to the United States never commit crimes, of course. But a dedicated group of criminals have used the freedom of the Cuban American Adjustment Act to jump bond when they are caught.

“The ease with which a lot of these folks were going back and forth, it’s almost like going from Miami to Palm Beach County,” Kestin said. “The back and forth was really surprising.”

The paper started out just looking at health care fraud, but the investigation quickly spread to other types of crime. 

“First we were looking at Medicare, but then people would tell us, ‘well, you know, the Cubans also dominate cargo theft,’ or ‘You know, the Cubans also dominate marijuana growing,’” O’Matz told me. “They were focused on lucrative crimes that get little jail time if they’re caught.” 

The team’s original hope, that they’d be able to tie all this crime to the Cuban regime, did not pan out. 

“There are a lot of people who believe that to be true, or believe that it can’t not be true, but we can’t say this has Castro’s fingerprints on it,” said Howard Saltz, the top editor. “To say, the paperwork is sitting on Fidel Castro’s desk—‘Here, sign this and we’ll go rip off the U.S. government’—we don’t have that.” 

Still, what the Sun Sentinel did show is getting noticed.

“I see it as being smart and ambitious, to their credit,” said Manny Garcia, editor of the Naples Daily News and former executive editor of El Nuevo Herald and managing editor of the Miami Herald.

Juan Tamayo, a retired reporter and foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, was also impressed.

“I think they did a great job in laying out what we know and what we don’t know about crime,” he said. “The size of the crime going on surprised me. We knew about the Medicare fraud, but this took a much broader view.”

But Tamayo doesn’t see the Sun Sentinel’s work prompting any change to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which has widespread support within the Cuban community and gets very little criticism from South Florida politicians. 

“They all agree it’s being abused, but they think it would not be appropriate for them to say, ‘Let’s close this loophole,’” he said. “This is an amazing piece of enterprise reporting, but I don’t think it will have any policy implications.”

O’Matz isn’t so sure.

“Everything regarding Cuba seems to be up for discussion right now,” she said, noting that President Barack Obama had recently announced a thaw in relations between the two countries. “Hopefully our series will be considered when Congress takes up the issue.”

O’Matz, Kestin, and Maines said they have been pleasantly surprised with the way the series was received in the community.

“I thought we would get a negative reaction from the Cuban community, but it’s been just the opposite,” Kestin told me. “People are telling us, ‘We knew this was happening.’”

The series continues an impressive run of investigations at the paper, including one I wrote about in 2013 and another that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service earlier that year.

That has been possible even though the staff is about half the size it was at its height, Saltz said, in part because of “vast efficiencies in the production process, doing things the reader doesn’t notice… The reader doesn’t benefit from a different layout every day, but for years we redesigned pages every night.”

It’s hard to imagine readers don’t miss some things the now-departed half of the newsroom produced. But there’s no doubt readers benefit from setting Kestin, O’Matz, and Maines loose to dig into South Florida’s dirty little secrets.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.