POINCIANA — Cuban refugees are dominating arrests in Florida's indoor-marijuana trade, investigators say.
Groups identified by law enforcement as Cuban drug trafficking organizations control hundreds of grow houses that have sprung up from Miami to Atlanta since 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, court records and Orlando Sentinel interviews with local and federal drug agents.
They're lured to the marijuana trade by money — the ultrapotent pot is worth up to $4,500 a pound — and by lenient punishments, according to authorities. Probation is a common sentence for anyone convicted in state court of running a grow house with fewer than 100 plants, drug agents say, and U.S. policy prevents the deportation of Cubans.
Statewide, records aren't kept that specify the nationalities of those who run grow houses, but investigators point to other data:
• South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area supervisors estimate that Cubans who arrived in the United States in the past five years represent 85 to 90 percent of the suspects arrested in Florida on grow-house-related charges. The estimate is based on arrests in South Florida, the center of the trade, and two statewide raids in 2008 and 2009.
• In Poinciana, Cuban-born suspects represent about 85 percent of growers. The Polk County Sheriff's Office reports that since 2005 142 of 172 suspects caught tending grow houses have identified their place of birth as Cuba.
• Central Florida drug agents say in the past year Cuban-born suspects ran about 20 of 41 grow houses in Brevard County; nine of 12 in Orange County; 10 of 13 in Osceola County; nine of 11 in Lake County; and 12 of 42 in Volusia County. In North Florida, drug agents say, the number runs about 70 percent and higher.
"The last thing we want to do in law enforcement is crucify the Cuban-American community as a whole — they have made South Florida what it is today," said Capt. Joe Mendez of the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. "That's why we are saying these are Cuban refugees, recent arrivals. … They arrive here on a raft, and drug dealers give them a place to live and promise them they'll own the (grow) house in a year or two."
Cuban-American National Council president Guarione M. Diaz in Miami was unaware of the high percentage of young Cuban-born suspects arrested statewide in the pot trade. "But I think even one is too many," he said.