MIAMI — As Medicare crime spreads across South Florida, fugitives are escaping in droves to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution — with more than 150 now wanted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. health care program, according to the FBI and court records.
The tally of fugitives charged with health care fraud here has tripled since 2008, when the Miami Herald first reported on the phenomenon of Cuban immigrants joining the Medicare rackets and fleeing to evade trial in Miami.
But during the past three years, the FBI has captured only 16 fugitives, reflecting the difficulty in catching Spanish-speaking suspects who head south to hide out. Most of the fugitives were born in Cuba, immigrated to South Florida after 1990 and can easily live under the radar in Latin America with hundreds of thousands or millions in taxpayer dollars fleeced from Medicare.
Even if fugitives can be located in Cuba, there's no way to get them back because of the political realities at play.
"They go to Cuba so they can't be caught," said Rolando Betancourt, a longtime Miami bail bondsman who has tracked one Medicare fugitive to Havana. "You can find anybody in Cuba; you just can't arrest them."
Because so many of the Medicare defendants are Cuban, rumors have swirled for years that the Castro government has purposely trained and deployed immigrants to take over Medicare-licensed clinics in South Florida, and then harbored them after they returned home. But federal agents and prosecutors, while privately speculating about an official Cuba connection, say they've never uncovered evidence linking Fidel and Raul Castro's regime to the rampant health care fraud on this side of the Florida Straits.
Moreover, the feds have made no official attempts to seek extradition of fugitives in Cuba, mainly because the United States has no formal relations with the government. Agents have captured some Cuban fugitives returning from the island as they travel through Miami International Airport.
Cuba watchers, legal experts and others who have witnessed South Florida's ascendance as the nation's Medicare fraud capital say the Cuban government's involvement would not be that far-fetched — though they have no proof to back it up.
"It wouldn't surprise me if one day that is proven to be a fact," said Miami lawyer Sam Rabin. One of his clients, Eduardo Moreno, fled to Cuba after posting a $450,000 bond in 2007 on health care fraud charges. He had collected $2 million from Medicare on bogus claims for medical equipment and HIV services.
"I think it would be very hard for someone with millions in currency to stay under the radar in Cuba" without that government's protection, Rabin added.
James Cason, who served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002-2005, said it's highly probable that the Cuban government shakes down Medicare fraud fugitives, but doubts its direct involvement in the health care scams.
"There is no way the Cuban government wouldn't know about this," said Cason, who was recently elected mayor of Coral Gables. "Whether the Cuban government is involved or not (in Medicare fraud), the Cuban government wants the hard currency from the fugitives."
Cason called the Medicare offenders "scammers, not revolutionaries," saying the FBI should try to work with the Justice and State departments to engage Cuba in extraditing some of the fugitives.
"The Cuban government will investigate if they think it's in their interest," he said. "But I bet the FBI hasn't asked them."