In September, police in Grand Rapids, MI arrested four people for skimming credit account numbers from gas pumps, copying the data onto new cards, and using them to buy thousands of dollars in gift cards at big box retailers.
These were not local Michigan crooks, however. They were Cuban citizens living in South Florida.
Across the U.S., Cuban crime rings are quietly stealing billions of dollars from U.S. businesses and taxpayers. It's a phenomenon we at the Sun Sentinel documented extensively in January 2015 in a series of investigative reports: Plundering America: The Cuban Criminal Pipeline.
A year later, the crime rings continue to thrive, even as the U.S. and Cuba take historic steps to end decades of hostility by opening embassies and holding regular talks on restoring air travel, protecting the environment, improving telecommunications, and—even—cooperating on law enforcement matters.
U.S. authorities and policymakers would be wise to scrutinize the activities of these Cuban criminal networks in far greater depth in order to better control how they access the U.S. and to determine what training and support they receive—just as importantly, to determine whether stolen funds are winding up in Cuba.
The Sun Sentinel traveled to Cuba, examined hundreds of court documents, and obtained federal data never before made public to expose how Cuban crime rings gained easy entry to the U.S. and grew to dominate high-dollar frauds.
Obtaining information was not easy.
Local prosecutors and investigators were reluctant to talk for fear of offending the politically powerful Cuban community. U.S. officials at the departments of state, justice and immigration declined interviews or gave unhelpful, off-point answers. Federal authorities denied numerous public records requests— even refusing to release the names of Cuban fugitives out of concern for their privacy.
Ultimately, the Sun Sentinel obtained a little-known database of federal arrests, called the Joint Automated Booking System. We found that Cuban citizens and immigrants were disproportionately represented in certain highly lucrative offenses ranging from Medicare scams and credit card fraud to indoor marijuana cultivation.
For example, while Cuba-born residents account for less than one percent of the U.S. population, they represent 41 percent of health-care fraud arrests nationwide.
How did the crime rings gain a foothold, and flourish?
U.S. immigration policy made it easy. For more than 50 years, America has welcomed Cubans as refugees fleeing communism. The U.S. allows automatic entry for Cubans who reach U.S. soil, and the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act grants them legal residency after just one year, an advantage given to no other immigrant group.
Greater openness in travel between the two countries has also aided the criminals.
We showed how people were taking millions of dollars back to Cuba from these rackets and recruiting friends and family from the island to work as foot soldiers in the operations. When law enforcement closes in, the culprits often return to Cuba, where they can live openly and freely.
Cuba so far has refused to return any of their citizens to face justice in the United States.
Reporting from Cuba, the newspaper located one fugitive wanted for stealing $180,000 in nickels from the Federal Reserve and another charged in a $1 million Texas credit card ring who had boasted he “went to the U.S. to steal, to damage the U.S. Government.”
In another case, the Sun Sentinel determined that the Cuban government benefited from the crime, seizing $200,000 from the leader of an $18 million auto insurance scam who had fled to Cuba to avoid arrest.
Our reporting eventually led us down a related path. We found Cuban immigrants were collecting U.S. welfare benefits – in Cuba. In a separate investigative series, Easy Money, published in October, the Sun Sentinel reported that Cuban immigrants were cashing in on U.S. welfare and returning to the island, making a mockery of the decades-old premise that they are refugees fleeing persecution at home.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami called the level of fraud uncovered by the Sun Sentinel unacceptable and said the Cuban Adjustment Act “is ripe for reform.'' And droves of readers wrote and called the Sun Sentinel or offered comments online, decrying the unfairness of the policies and urging action.
As a result of the Sun Sentinel investigation, two bills have been introduced in Congress. One, filed in October by U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, would repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act. The other, filed in December by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami, would make Cuban immigrants ineligible for refugee aid unless they prove they are fleeing persecution and are unable to return home.
Congress and the White House need to examine whether the Cuban government has trained criminals to commit fraud here and determine the extent to which it has benefited from the illicit money flowing back. They should demand that Cuba accept some 34,000 criminals who've been ordered deported from the U.S. and that it return fugitives wanted for crimes in America.
The Obama administration and the presidential candidates should reevaluate the U.S.-Cuba immigration policy that began with good intentions—to aid those fleeing communism—but is now exploited with ease by Cuban crime rings.
Megan O'Matz is an investigative reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Along with fellow staffer John Maines, she won the 2013-2014 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting award for a two-part series on drug busts in southern Florida. She welcomes comments from readers.