Miami River Cops Case: Alex Alvarez, Lead Detective

Nov 30, 1999

When he joined the police academy right out of high school, 19-year-old "Alex" Alvarez had no way of knowing his career choice would lead him to international prominence. Yet, after quickly rising to the rank of detective, Alex found himself assigned to lead the investigation into what would become an international tale of murder and corruption, with current and former members of the Miami police force at the heart of the scandal.

It was summer 1985 and detective Alex Alvarez was part of a special task force known as CENTAC 26, a highly specialized unit that handled high-profile, drug-related homicides. Detectives assigned to the task force worked on a rotating schedule, with each assuming the role of lead detective as their name came up on the roster. And so it was, with a simple twist of fate, that Alex found himself immersed in one of the largest cases of police corruption ever to be uncovered - the infamous "Miami River Cops Case."

In the early hours of July 28, 1985, with Alex serving his turn as lead detective, one of the police units patrolling the area around the Miami River contacted dispatch, stating that the bodies of three men had been found in the river, all apparent drowning victims.

All of the victims were fully dressed and two of the men carried guns and had in their possession substantial amounts of cash, all of it in large bills. These findings led the dispatcher to contact CENTAC 26, as it was apparent that this was no ordinary drowning. That call would be the first of many the young detective would answer in the coming years as the case grew to include suspects, informants and evidence from around the globe.

The dead men were identified as Juan Garcia, Alfredo Lopez-Yanes and Pedro Martinez. It would later be learned that the three were part of a drug smuggling operation that had brought thousands of pounds of cocaine into the United States by way of Miami. Further, it would be learned, the three dead men were victims of a criminal enterprise that was headed by a drug kingpin and managed by a group of rogue police officers.

The investigation and subsequent trials rocked the city of Miami, which was still recovering from riots and a major police scandal that had left a black mark on the city in the early 1980s. When completed, the investigation would identify no less than 18 corrupt Miami police officers as participants in an organized crime ring whose tactics included robbing and sometimes killing drug dealers and profiting from the sale of the drugs.

As evidence was gathered and informants began to come forward, the drowning of the three drug smugglers in the Miami River became the focus of a major investigation into police corruption. One of the first witnesses in the case was a gentleman named Bob Downs, a watchman working the graveyard shift at Jones Boat Yard on the Miami River. Sometime after midnight, as Downs recounted to police, he was startled when some "men in blue" banged loudly on the office door and demanded he open it. The men identified themselves as Miami police officers, and said they were there to carry out a police raid. Unarmed and frightened, Downs opened the door and allowed the men to enter.

Inside the boatyard, Garcia, Lopez-Yanes and Martinez and at least two other men were busy unloading large quantities of cocaine from a 40-foot boat that had arrived a few days earlier.

After allowing the men in blue to enter the building, Downs would recall later, the men began to scuffle, with Garcia, Martinez and Lopez-Yanes somehow winding up in the water. The coroner's report listed drowning as the cause of death for each man. Immediately following the scuffle, the men in blue demanded Downs remove a padlock from a nearby gate which led to the boat yard. With the gate open, they commandeered a van and drove away. The van, it would later be learned, had been filled with bundles of cocaine.

As the investigation got underway, Detective Alvarez would tap all available resources, turning over every rock to uncover possible clues. The investigation soon led to three Miami police offers, Armando Estrada, Armando Garcia and Arturo de la Vega, all of whom were charged with murder. Arturo de la Vega was also charged with drug trafficking.

Detective Alvarez had read the statement provided by the night watchman Downs about the purported police raid the men in blue were said to be carrying out, and immediately began checking with all area law enforcement agencies to determine if indeed a raid had been scheduled for the night in question. He found that no such raid had been planned or carried out on or around July 28, a fact that raised suspicions but provided no hard evidence.

The task force went about investigating the matter but found itself short on solid leads until Alvarez received a call from an agent with the FBI, telling him they had obtained information from an informant who told of Miami police officers that were "ripping off drug dealers" on the river. "We'd like to meet with your source," Alvarez told the FBI, but that was not to be: the informant was a self-proclaimed 'double agent and the bureau was intent on keeping his identity a secret. The double agent would later be identified as Francisco Avila, a man who had secretly worked for U.S. interests while passing himself off as a Cuban spy.

Three or four months before the drownings, Avila had told his FBI "controlling agent," Roberto Diaz, that a close friend of Avila's, Armando Un Roque, was in cahoots with the crooked police officers. "That's how we zeroed in on these people right away," Alvarez said in an interview with Miami Herald.

Over the next several weeks, Alvarez and fellow homicide detectives managed to gain Un Roque's confidence, turning him into their informant and convincing him to gather information on the corrupt police officers. Alvarez placed Un Roque in protective custody and hid him in a safe house in Coral Gables, with round-the-clock protection, for a full year while detectives gathered evidence on the officers who had been implicated in the case.

The investigation would ultimately expand to include other current and former Miami police officers, drug smugglers and assorted shady characters, and led to the arrest and conviction of 18 Miami police officers. As lead detective, Alex Alvarez was responsible for overseeing all aspects of the investigation, including the gathering of evidence and the search for witnesses, many of whom came from countries across Central and South America. His duties also included arranging transportation to safe houses for witnesses and entering them into various witness protection programs around the world.

He was named 1987 Officer of the Year by the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Dade County Police Benevolent Association and the Hispanic Police Officer's Association. Through the course of his career, he has received over 30 commendations for his leadership role in this landmark case.

The investigation and subsequent trials consumed much of Alex's time and afforded him the opportunity to sit for extended periods at the prosecutor's table in the Miami courtroom, where he was able to see another side of the justice system. What he saw intrigued him and it was during the trial that he made the decision to pursue a career as a trial lawyer.

While working as a detective, Alex earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from St. Thomas University in 1989, graduating Cum Laude. He then entered law school at age 31, working under cover with the Miami Police Department for three years while attending school. During that time, Alex's duties included monitoring wiretaps of conversations between members of the mafia, at times working closely with then Attorney General Janet Reno. He went on to earn his Juris Doctorate degree in 1992 from the University of Miami Law School, where he was elected by his peers to the prestigious national honorary society, Order of the Barrister.

Alex Alvarez honed his investigative skills as a member of the Miami-Dade police department and a key figure in the Miami River Cops Case. As an attorney, he puts those skills to work in helping his clients find the answers to difficult questions. His inquisitive nature, combined with practical, hands-on experience on both sides of the justice system, make him uniquely qualified as a trial lawyer.

Contact Mr. Alvarez today if you or someone you know can benefit from the services of a tough-minded, street-tested attorney.

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