U.S. has no idea how many fugitives Cuba's harboring
By Megan O'Matz and Sally Kestin
The United States does not know how many fugitives are in Cuba.
Nobody tracks it. Nobody even routinely asks for the return of those
wanted on serious federal charges, much less more common state offenses,
the Sun Sentinel has found.
Law enforcement officials on state and federal levels say paperwork is
rarely filed in Washington to request diplomatic assistance out of a
sense that doing so would be futile. The United States has no working
extradition treaty with Cuba.
"I could request Mars send someone back and we'd probably have better
luck" said Ryan Stumphauzer, a former U.S. assistant state attorney in
Miami who prosecuted Medicare cheats, most of them Cuban-born. "We know
Cuba is not sending anybody back."
Since President Obama's surprise shift in December toward normalizing
relations with the Communist-led nation, some members of Congress have
demanded that Cuba hand over fugitives. The irony: law enforcement isn't
regularly seeking their return.
Last week, three U.S. senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio, asked
the FBI to produce the names of fugitives in Cuba and copies of their
indictments. No complete list is likely to be forthcoming.
There is no formal mechanism in use to request extradition, no centrally
collected records nationwide of how many likely are on the run in Cuba,
and no coordination among counties or states on the issue, the Sun
Sentinel has found.
Even in Miami-Dade County, where most Cuban-Americans live, state
prosecutors do not log or tally fugitives thought to be in Cuba.
"It's not like we send up to Justice our Christmas list of potential
felons," said Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's
In recent weeks the U.S. Marshals Office in South Florida has been
scrambling to compile a list of people possibly hiding in Cuba, in case
the Castro government suddenly agrees to expel such fugitives.
"We want to be prepared," said Marshals Office spokesman Barry Golden.
The Sun Sentinel, in a recent far-reaching investigation into Cuban
crime rings in America, disclosed that Cuban nationals are taking
advantage of generous U.S. immigration laws to come to the U.S. and
steal billions from government programs and businesses.
Millions of dollars have traveled back to Cuba, and many individuals
flee there when police close in on scams the Cubans specialize in. These
typically involve health care, auto insurance, or credit card fraud;
cargo theft; or marijuana trafficking, the Sun Sentinel found.
The Sun Sentinel located one fugitive wanted in a million dollar Texas
credit card fraud case living in Santa Clara, Cuba. He'd written to the
judge in his case in 2013, saying he "went to the U.S. to steal" and
included his return address in Cuba.
Prosecutors had no evidence he was actually in Cuba and had not sought
his return. "We can't extradite from Cuba. We wouldn't reach out to the
State Department in a case like that," said Scott Carpenter of the
District Attorney's Office in Fort Bend County, Texas.
In the occasional diplomatic talks, high-level U.S. officials have
brought up the issue of fugitives in Cuba — usually the cases of
prominent violent offenders, such as New Jersey cop killer Joanne
Chesimard, a member the militant Black Liberation Army who fled to Cuba
30 years ago and was given political asylum.
How these appeals happen are a mystery to most street level
investigators and prosecutors who simply don't bother filing voluminous
records to Washington because the process is cumbersome, costly and
"As far as them putting together a package for extradition, I guarantee
that isn't happening," said Humberto Dominguez, a Miami criminal defense
lawyer. "It would be worse if they did: it would be such a waste of
Why send the paperwork to Cuba, he asked. "So they can utilize it as a
No answers or records
John Caulfield, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana until
2014, said that for many years, American officials figured "there was no
point in talking to the Cubans" because they didn't expect any cooperation.
But he said he'd tell individuals in law enforcement that if you don't
ask, you don't know what will happen. "We were surprised in some cases"
when the U.S. asked for someone's return and got it.
In the past decade, Cuban officials have returned a handful of
criminals: Kidnappers. Child abusers. An insurance fraudster and others.
Neither the Department of State nor the Department of Justice will
answer questions about how many fugitives the U.S. has sought to have
returned, who, or even whether, state and federal prosecutors request
In recent months, the agencies have provided the Sun Sentinel with the
same prepared statement three times: "The United States continues to
seek the return from Cuba of fugitives from U.S. justice, and repeatedly
raises their cases with the Government of Cuba."
Said Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr: "We generally do not
disclose if requests are made or provide information on whether specific
cases have been brought before different foreign authorities."
In March, the Sun Sentinel filed a Freedom of Information request with
the Justice Department seeking copies of requests from prosecutors for
the return of Cuban nationals wanted for felonies since 2007. The
newspaper also sought records showing what efforts were made to inform
Cuban authorities or US diplomats in Cuba of a fugitive's possible
presence in Cuba.
The agency replied that it "failed to locate any responsive records."
The Sun Sentinel has received no records under a similar request made
nine months ago to the State Department.
American University Professor William LeoGrande, a specialist in Latin
American politics, said Cuba has had difficulty getting solid
information from the Justice Department on fugitives the U.S. wants.
"I've had a Cuban official tell me they couldn't even get confirmation
that this was the right person."
Teddy Roosevelt's treaty
It's widely assumed that the U.S. has no extradition treaty with Cuba.
In fact, one was signed in 1904 under President Theodore Roosevelt. Its
use was suspended in the 1960s after Fidel Castro came to power.
"You often hear that the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Cuba
has been abandoned. That's not so," said Robert Muse, a Washington
attorney and expert on Cuban-related law. "It's listed by the State
Department as a treaty in force. This agreement exists, it's just in
Requesting extradition from any country is a long, formal, onerous
effort, guided by the terms of each treaty.
Prosecutors must assemble affidavits stating the facts of the case;
texts of relevant criminal statutes; certified copies of arrest warrants
and indictments; evidence such as court transcripts, photographs and
fingerprints of the criminal; and any conviction papers.
An original and four copies must be sent to the Justice Department's
Office of International Affairs in Washington, which translates the
material and funnels it to the State Department. Prosecutors are warned
not to contact foreign countries directly.
Appeals are made by American Embassy officials through "diplomatic
note," accompanied by the thick bundle of documents —certified and
secured with an official seal and red ribbon.
Though federal officials in Miami know that dozens of Medicare fraud
fugitives who stole millions fled to Cuba, "Why would the government
file extradition requests when there isn't even a treaty to proceed
under?" said Stumphauzer, who left the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami
Asked what federal agents do when they learn a Medicare fraudster has
taken off to Cuba, one current investigator explained: they throw up
their hands and say: "Oh crap," knowing the likelihood of recovering
someone is low.
State and local officials, too, make no attempts at extradition.
Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Henry Sacramento, whose team repeatedly arrests
Cubans in marijuana grow houses, said: "We just put a warrant in the
system and hope they make a mistake in coming back into the country again."
"As far as extradition from Cuba," he said, "I don't know of anyone
that's tried to do that."
The Jan. 23rd letter Rubio and the two other senators sent to U.S.
Attorney General Eric Holder, requesting a list of all fugitives the FBI
believes are living in Cuba, notes "there is little definitive
information about their cases available publicly."
The senators wrote that there are longtime murderers and airplane
hijackers in Cuba, but also "numerous others guilty of lesser but still
important crimes, including money laundering and health care fraud."
For years, members of Congress have accused Cuba of harboring 70 to 80
fugitives: most of whom fled there decades ago
More recently, the FBI in Miami has compiled a spreadsheet showing 20
Medicare fugitives thought to be hiding in Cuba.
The Sun Sentinel, in its investigation, found references in court or
police records to an additional 50 wanted in other frauds, cargo theft
or marijuana trafficking.
The count could be far higher.
There are 500 Cuban-born fugitives wanted on federal charges and at
least another 500 wanted on state charges in Florida alone. They could
be anywhere in the world, according to records provided by the U.S.
Marshals Service and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
FDLE does not require country of birth to be filled out consistently on
warrants, so it's impossible to fully determine exactly how many are
from Cuba or may have gone back there.
Proving a criminal is in Cuba can be difficult. At times authorities
know a fugitive boarded a charter flight for Cuba, but in other cases
they have only the word of a family member to go on — and that person
may lie to throw police off the track.
"There's no method of confirming that somebody has fled, either directly
to Cuba or indirectly through another country, because we don't have
communication with anyone in Cuba to verify that," said Golden, the
Marshals Service spokesman.
Some criminal defense lawyers representing Cuban offenders believe
thousands of fugitives may have returned there.
Fort Myers defense attorney Rene Suarez, who represents Cuban clients,
said public estimates of fugitives in Cuba are typically "big, federal
"But most of these folks that have gone back, they're not federal cases.
The vast majority are just state charges that are tracked county by
county," he said.
Asked if there could be hundreds hiding in Cuba, he said: "No … there's
got to be thousands of them."
Staff writer William E. Gibson and correspondent Tracey Eaton
contributed to this report.
Source: U.S.-Cuba extradition treaty lacking - Sun Sentinel -
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