By MATT GUTMAN, ERIN BRADY, SENI TIENABESO and CANDACE SMITH
Police in a Southern Florida community outside of Fort Lauderdale have been using a controversial tactic to conduct cocaine sting operations and have been raking in millions of dollars in the process.
For years, the Sunrise, Fla., police have been conducting what are called "reverse stings." Undercover police detectives play the role of cocaine dealers and try to lure in potential buyers who drive or fly in from all over the country with wads of cash. If the stings are successful, informants can receive large payouts and police can seize cash, cars and other non-monetary assets. The busts have pumped millions of dollars into local coffers.
The Sun Sentinel was the first to report the Sunrise Police's lucrative sting operations after the newspaper conducted a six-month investigation into the department's drug seizures.
"The police are not actually finding these drug dealers on their own but they rely on paid and unpaid informants to tell them about people that might be looking for cocaine, and it became obvious to us that the reason they are doing this is because of the money," said Megan O'Matz, one of the reporters who broke the story.
Sunrise, Fla., is a bedroom community, home to one of the country's biggest shopping centers and mile after mile of identical, coral-colored condos. But millions of dollars' worth of undercover drug commerce has occurred in this unlikely setting.
Gus Borjas, a nurse by profession and a father of four from Homestead, Fla., got caught up in one of the Sunrise Police's cocaine stings. Lured by a paid informant he had known for years who promised to repay an old debt, Borjas agreed to bring a satchel filled with $23,000 in cash to a parking lot and, when he got there, he walked straight into a trap, Borjas said.
Undercover video from the case shows a second paid informant aggressively drawing him into the action.
"In order for them to keep the money they have to make ... it look like I'm buying the drugs, obviously, you know," Borjas said.
Eventually, the female informant placed a kilo of cocaine in Borjas' bag to establish possession.
Suddenly, Borjas was now a drug offender and facing a possible mandatory 15-year minimum sentence for narcotics trafficking.
"As soon as I got arrested, as soon as they-- Just, everything clicked in my head," he said. "'Why this? Why that?' They set me up."
According to Miami attorney Alan Ross, who defended Borjas in court, the scale of the Sunrise Police cocaine stings seemed almost industrial.
"It's a huge business," Ross said. "It's a multimillion dollar business. It's been going on for years. It's been a daily event in the city of Sunrise."
Over the past two years, the police department has netted $5.8 million in seized money, according to the Sun-Sentinel. The money was used to purchase new equipment and to pay officers involved for overtime. Some officers even doubled their salary in overtime pay alone, and in Florida, the laws also permit police to seize non-monetary assets from suspects, the paper reported.
"They can take their cars, jewelry," O'Matz said. "One fella told us a cop said, 'Hey, I like the sunglasses you're wearing,' and snatched them, so there is a real profit motive for the police."
Informants in these stings can also make a lot of money. According to Sunrise police reports, one informant not connected to Borjas' case was paid a total of $800,000 over five years for bringing drug buyers into sting operations.
Sunrise Mayor Michael Ryan defended the practice and the police's tactics, denying that the stings were about the money.
"I do dispute that was going on here was trying to do anything other than fighting crime," he said. "They're doing the best they can do, and it happens throughout all of law enforcement."
When asked if the Sunrise Police seemed overzealous in trying to bring in potential drug dealers, Ryan called it an "unfair" allegation.
"There are occasions when errors are made. There are occasions when somebody goes too far and it doesn't go perfect," he said. "The reality is, hundreds of arrests were made, hundreds who pled. There were cases that were made, there were additional informants built up in further cooperation with the DEA and others. This was part of the operation to stop cocaine. It was an effort to stop cocaine and heroin from getting back to other communities and it worked."
Ultimately, Borjas got his $23,000 back and the prosecutor gave him a plea deal on a solicitation to purchase cocaine charge, because the female informant may have gone too far.
"These people only get paid if the deal goes down," Ross said. "Gus isn't the one who pulled off his backpack and opened it up. The informant did. She takes his backpack off, she unzips it, she's reaching in for the money. Gus isn't the one who took the cocaine, she took a kilo of cocaine stuffed it in his backpack. 'Here's the backpack, go get arrested.'"
"It's very unfair," he said. "Why should you go to jail if you're not a criminal? Why do they have to make up cases? Only criminals are supposed to go to jail, you know."
Ryan said that since reporters have revealed informants' identities and undercover locations, the reserve stings have stopped. He said the Sunrise Police Department will go back to what it always did -- fighting crime in Sunrise.