‘Tony Montana’ bust is a real gem, Miami authorities say

Miami HeraldJuly 2, 2012 

Authorities say a fence for stolen diamonds who calls himself “Tony Montana” didn’t know he was dealing with undercover cops when he dug himself a deeper hole by soliciting their help in other criminal enterprises.

Juan Antonio Guardarrama, 49, was in a Miami Beach hotel room about three weeks ago to buy more than a half-million dollars worth of what he was told was stolen jewelry, according to authorities. But during the negotiations, he asked the undercover cops whether they could traffic some of his Colorado-grown medical marijuana into South Florida.

If that wasn’t enough, he then brought up some problems he had been having with a business partner who had “disrespected” him. According to the arrest report, Guardarrama wanted this partner “taken out.”

He asked the undercover cops to do the job.

The charging documents against Guardarrama read like a scene from a movie. The fact his street alias was taken from the main character of Scarface, the classic Miami crime noir film, just scratches the surface.

According to authorities, this Cuban immigrant rose from being a small-time bookie in Sweetwater to becoming a key player in a criminal enterprise that finds targets for international jewelry thieves and reintroduces their stolen goods into the market.

“Guardarrama has extensive experience and knowledge in the jewelry business, as well as extensive contacts in the commerce of diamonds and gold,” according to an affidavit in support of his arrest. “In many cases, Guardarrama has personally bought the stolen jewelry or diamonds, and on other occasions, Guardarrama has acted as a broker facilitating deals between the robbers and other buyers.”

His arrest on June 7 came after a four-year, multiagency investigation that has led to convictions of several thieves in South Florida. Apart from the evidence from two undercover operations, prosecutors are counting on the testimony of several convicted jewel thieves who are serving prison time for their involvement in the criminal organization.

Last week, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office charged Guardarrama with more than a dozen felony counts, from racketeering and money-laundering to dealing in stolen property and soliciting first-degree murder.

“It wouldn’t be the first time a defendant is overcharged,” said Jonathan Blecher, one of his two defense attorneys.

Guardarrama was born in Ciego de Avila, Cuba, according to police records. In 1984, a year after Scarface hit the theaters, he immigrated to the United States with his mother.

He graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1985 and studied English and business at Miami Dade College. It is unclear what he did immediately after dropping out.

His first run-in with police was a disorderly intoxication arrest in 1990. A year later, he was arrested and later convicted after a road-rage incident on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. According to court records, Guardarrama got out of his car and threatened the other driver with a semiautomatic pistol.

In 1994, he was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. Three years later, he was arrested and convicted of assault, extortion and illegal bookmaking. Records show Guardarrama had threatened to kill a man who owed $13,500 in gambling debts outside a Mexican restaurant in Sweetwater.

“I’m very small-time,” he told the arresting officer. “I work by myself.”

By then, Guardarrama was a married man and the father of a young daughter. The couple divorced four years ago. His ex-wife did not respond to telephone messages.

State business records show that in 1996, Guardarrama helped to start a business called Plastic Air Freshener in downtown Miami. The office was a block from the Seybold Building, 36 NE First St., a hub of diamond and jewelry commerce in Miami. It is unclear what Guardarrama’s business did, exactly, but in 1997 he reported earning about $200 per month as a jewelry seller, according to police records.

Jewelers at the Seybold building say Guardarrama had been in the wholesale diamond and gold business for close to two decades. He was a friendly guy with a good reputation, a seller who visited routinely to sell them jewelry they then sold in their own stores.

None of them could believe the allegations against Guardarrama. Authorities say he coordinated two groups of jewelry thieves that have operated in South Florida and across the country since at least 2005.

Stealing diamonds is a lucrative, age-old business, said Steven Wexler, president of the private Wexler Insurance Agency, which covers the industry. At the national level, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of precious stones and gold are stolen each year in the United States, he estimated. His own Coral Gables-based agency reported $50 million in losses last year.

“Thefts have increased in the past few years, and many blame the economy,” he said. “South Florida has been hit especially hard, mostly because of the Colombian gangs.”

Guardarrama worked with these groups of thieves who live in Colombia but travel to Miami and other U.S. cities to commit robberies, authorities say. He was one of a few fences who helped the thieves follow traveling diamond dealers who sell their wares in the Seybold building, according to the sworn testimony of convicted thieves.

“Sometimes a person who is in the jewelry business, Mr. Juan Guardarrama, called us to tip us about the victims,” Andrés Felipe Lema told authorities under oath. “We followed jewelry/diamond representatives around, waiting for them to stop at gas stations, hotels, restaurants, jeweler stores or pawn shops. At those places we attacked them.”

During a typical assault, the crew would break through a dealer’s car windows or slash his tires, often while the dealer was still inside. Then they would grab the bags of jewelry and run.

The second crew of diamond thieves, mainly Cuban-born welders, ransacked jewelry stores after hours. One thief, Tony Adrián Sánchez Estrada, gave a sworn statement explaining that the group used metal cutters to open holes in stores’ ceilings that they could then drop through. Once inside, they deactivated the alarms. Finally, one of the welders would use a blowtorch to enter the safe.

“That took about almost three hours, four hours, more or less,” said Sanchez, who once worked as a welder on boats in Cuba.

After the heists, authorities say, both groups would call Guardarrama or another of the fences involved in the criminal enterprise. They would meet with Guardarrama in Miami Beach hotel rooms, at his downtown Miami apartment or even in his mother’s modest duplex in Sweetwater, according to the allegations.

Business was good for Guardarrama. Records show he lived in a series of high-end apartments and drove luxury SUVs. He put his daughter through a good private school.

His divorce records indicate he paid $4,000 a month in alimony and an additional $1,000 a month in child support. Despite a court order, Guardarrama never submitted a financial statement detailing his monthly earnings and expenses.

About two years ago, as law enforcement closed in on more than a dozen thieves involved in the operation, Guardarrama skipped town. Jewelers at the Seybold building commented about his sudden absence.

He had moved to a luxury apartment in Denver with his girlfriend. According to authorities in Colorado, Guardarrama obtained a license to work in the state’s medical marijuana industry. However, he is not registered as an owner of such a business.

Still, according to the June 7 arrest form, Guardarrama told the undercover cops that he grows marijuana in two Colorado warehouses.

Apparently feeling at ease, Guardarrama showed the agents a live video feed of the marijuana grows from a Nanny Cam linked to his cellphone.

Then, he asked them “to travel to Colorado and pick up 20 pounds of marijuana a month to be distributed in Miami-Dade County,” according to the arrest form.

The undercover cops didn’t expect the negotiations about stolen diamonds to take this turn. Authorities say the solicitation to kill Guardarrama’s partner was another surprise.

The trial, scheduled for October, promises to be entertaining. Last week, when a prosecutor presented the charges against Guardarrama, he made sure to mention his infamous nickname.

Upon hearing the name “Tony Montana,” those in the courtroom burst into laughter.

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