Executions aren’t this cold-blooded, or clear, in mob movies.
Over five tense minutes caught on a video camera secretly installed in a Miami parking garage, a one-time member of a notorious Latin gang methodically preps and hides his handgun, then chats with his friend before pulling the weapon. His victim begs for his life, at times with the two men face to face, before the shooter once known as Psycho blasts away at close range.
The Miami Herald has the video.
Brutal video evidence aside, it might rank as a typical South Florida murder except that accused gunman, David Paneque, was supposed to have been deported nearly two years ago. But immigration authorities had to release him to the streets.
The reason: Paneque is Cuban. Even under renewed diplomatic relations established under former President Barack Obama, the island accepts back relatively few of its criminal citizens. Deportations to Cuba have risen under the aggressive policies pursued by President Donald Trump but still number only in the hundreds.
“Where are they going to send me? Cuba doesn’t want me,” Paneque joked during questioning by Miami-Dade police just before his latest arrest. “They don’t want me here. They don’t want me there.”
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office on Wednesday formally charged Paneque, 29, with the murder of Leandro Lopez. Police say the motive of the murder remains unclear.
Paneque, who remains jailed while awaiting trial, pleaded not guilty. His attorney declined to comment.
The Miami murder case could add to a national immigration debate that has become highly politicized, with the White House elevating border walls and crackdowns on illegal immigration into a signature policy. Undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America implicated in high-profile crimes have become social media lightning rods for the president and many supporters. But Cuban Americans, generally seen as important political allies for Republicans, had historically enjoyed a special status owing to more lenient immigration policies for people escaping the Communist government.
Former Miami U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who last year introduced an immigration reform bill that failed, said his proposal would have addressed dangerous felons like Paneque, allowing for their indefinite detention if they could not be deported.
“This illustrates a major flaw in our immigration laws. Even though this individual is an undocumented immigrant with a history of violent crime, by law, he had to be released,” said Curbelo, a Republican who lost his seat to Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Paneque was 17 when he was first arrested for a violent crime.
According to police, he robbed a man at knifepoint outside a West Kendall restaurant in November 2007. During the “violent struggle,” the man was stabbed multiple times and airlifted to a hospital trauma center, according to an arrest report. Paneque, whose listed street name at the time was “Psycho,” was later caught trying to cash the man’s checks. At the time, he was also on probation on a conviction for carrying a concealed weapon.
The teen, charged as an adult, was sentenced in April 2008 to 10 years in prison for attempted murder and armed robbery. Soon after, ICE issued a press release announcing that Paneque was one of more than 300 violent street gang members who had been arrested as part of a national crackdown on gangs.
ICE described him as a “Cuban national and leader of a Sur-13 Clicque” who was “amenable for removal based on a criminal convictions.”
Sur-13, or Sureños, is a national network of loosely affiliated gangs with ties to the Mexican Mafia prison organization. The group started in California, and offshoots have popped up across the country. The gang is distinct from MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a gang with Central American roots that has been called out by Trump as a grave national security threat. A Miami-Dade homicide detective, however, listed his tattoo as “MS13” in an arrest report.
In the mid-2000s, Sur-13 affiliates sprang up in rural Florida and in Palm Beach County. Sur-13 members are generally of Mexican or Central American descent. Gang experts say it’s rare for a Cuban American like Paneque to join.
Paneque, in his police interview, later claimed he fell in with gang members while he was homeless and living at Robert King High Park, 7025 Flagler St., which back then was a hangout for local street gangs. Paneque was born in 1989 in Cuba, but it is unclear exactly when he arrived in Miami.
“I was in the streets and they brought me in, and I felt like, they were like a family,” Paneque said.
Somewhere along the line, likely in prison, Paneque got a sprawling “13” tattooed across his back, complete with the depiction of an Aztec-style warrior, and “SURSIDE” — or Southside across his chest.
While in a Florida state prison, Paneque picked up another criminal conviction for attacking corrections officers.
Paneque’s sentence behind bars was finished in March 2017. ICE agents took him into custody. One month later, an immigration judge ordered him removed from the United States. He remained in ICE custody until July 5, 2017.
He was released back to Miami under an “order of supervision.” Under U.S. law, only in rare exceptions can immigrants with deportation orders be held indefinitely if there is no likelihood of their removal from the country.
In Paneque’s case, “there was no significant likelihood of removal in the foreseeable future,” according to a statement from ICE spokeswoman Tamara Spicer.
Paneque is not alone.
More than 37,000 Cubans in the United States are facing orders of removal for convictions of crimes or immigration violations. Most of those are living freely under orders of supervision, which require them to check in at least once a year.
Cubans were rarely ever deported in the years before diplomatic relations resumed in 2015 under Obama. Even now, the country is considered “recalcitrant” and will not accept back most of its nationals.
Still, more Cubans are being deported, even though overall it’s a small number. In 2018, 463 Cuban nationals were returned to the island, according to ICE — a sevenfold increase from two years earlier.
The criteria for which Cubans actually get deported is often unclear, immigration attorneys say. Most who are returned arrived after Jan. 12, 2017 — when the United States ended a longstanding policy of allowing most Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay.
But it’s up to the Cuban government to accept back people like Paneque, said Juan Carlos Gomez, director of the Carlos A. Costa Immigration & Rights Clinic at Florida International University.
“They’re stuck. There is no mechanism to return him. There is no treaty between the two countries,” Gomez said.
The less-than-500 Cubans sent back last year remains a “small drop” in the pool of more than 30,000 with criminal convictions with deportation orders, said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration, a Washington, D.C., think tank that favors limited immigration.
One option, she said, was for the United States to threaten to limit the number of legal Cuban immigrants unless the Communist island begins to accept more deportees. “There are steps the Trump administration could take to prevent the situation from getting worse,” Vaughn said.
Curbelo, the former congressman from Miami, said he does not think traditional diplomacy will work.
“It’s the Cuban government,” Curbelo said. “Bottom line, they have no interest in any kind of cooperation with the United States. They are the problem.”
Paneque was released from ICE custody, and was also on probation until at least 2022.
He began working as an electrician, moved into an apartment on Miami’s Upper Eastside and fathered a child, Paneque later told police. His only goals, he claimed, were to chase women and make money. Paneque also got a medical marijuana card for post-traumatic stress he claimed he suffered in prison.
“I’m not going back to prison for some dumb s---,” Paneque said.
But Paneque immediately fell under suspicion in the murder of Lopez, whose bullet-riddled body was discovered on a roof parking lot at a strip mall on the 7300 block of Northwest 36th Street, on March 24.
Lopez, 31, was a new father who had owned a tattoo shop but also struggled with a drug addiction. Paneque claimed he met Lopez through a friend he’d known in prison, and the two would often hang out at strip clubs.
Detectives noted that Paneque was one of the last people to talk to Lopez by phone. On April 3, Paneque agreed to talk to police at the Miami-Dade homicide bureau.
During the hourlong questioning, Detective Juan Segovia struck up casual banter with Paneque, who said he was no longer in a gang and eagerly showed off photos of his new son, according to video of the interrogation that is now in evidence in the criminal case.
On Lopez’s final night, Paneque said he picked up his friend at the strip mall just down the street from the Turner Guilford Knight jail. Lopez had run out of gas and needed some money. After filling up Lopez’s SUV, the two took Paneque’s Ford F-150 to several strip clubs.
Early that morning, Paneque said, he dropped Lopez off back at his SUV on the rooftop. “I went home,” Paneque told Segovia.
Segovia showed him a still photo of the F-150 truck going up the ramp. Paneque agreed it was him. Then, he showed Paneque a photo of the Ford F-150 next to Lopez’s SUV. Also him, Paneque said.
Then, in a dramatic moment of police theater, Segovia placed a photo of Paneque holding a gun to Lopez’s face.
“Who’s that right there?” Segovia asked.
Paneque paused. “I don’t know,” he said.
“You realize now the whole thing is caught on video,” Segovia said.
“I have no idea,” the rattled suspect said.
“Why’d you shoot him?” the detective asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paneque said.
What Paneque did not know was that a restaurant owner in the strip mall had quietly installed a video surveillance system atop the garage to monitor his car after it’d been vandalized. From just feet away, the video captured Paneque pull out his gun, hiding it from Lopez for a few moments before suddenly thrusting it into his face.
In the video without sound, Lopez begged for mercy. Paneque seemed to relent, appearing to hug the man before coolly gunning him down, taking something from his body and driving off.
The video was stunningly clear. “The whole thing is on video … might as well be on an iMax theater,” Segovia said. “What happened, bro?”
Paneque leaned back and stretched his hands behind his head. “I don’t know nothing,” he said. “I plead the Fifth. I have the right to remain silence.”
“You have the right to remain silent,” Segovia said. “You’re under arrest for first-degree murder.”