Pedro Rosello was a young man when he rented a two-bedroom condo with an ocean view on the fifth floor of what was then one of the newest luxury buildings in Surfside, Florida, just outside Miami.
It was 1988, the peak of the Miami drug wars, and Rosello was a millionaire with fast cars and expensive suits. Flush with cash, he enjoyed a bar inside his condo and a Jacuzzi in the master bedroom. In the garage sat seven Porsches, a blue Ferrari and a Lotus – the type of sports car driven by James Bond in the 1977 film "The Spy Who Loved Me."
Rosello, whom friends called “Peggy,” appeared every bit the part of a successful businessman. He could have been a banker or a lawyer or a doctor. Instead, he was a “cocaine cowboy,” a smuggler for one of the most lucrative cocaine empires in the world.
Rosello built his fortune on cutting corners and dubious deals, just like the place he called home: Champlain Towers South.
In the end, he said, “the building fell, just like our once cocaine empire.”
USA TODAY interviewed Rosello from his cell inside the low-level Federal Corrections Institute in Miami, where he’s serving time for drug-related offenses. He was among dozens of former residents whom reporters contacted as part of a monthslong effort to catalog the forces at work behind the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside on June 24.
Read the full investigation here –Left to rot: Collapsed condo born of botched construction and evidence of money laundering
The tragedy killed 98 people in one of the deadliest such disasters in recent history and put a spotlight on how development, construction and maintenance of the 40-year-old building could have contributed to its collapse.
USA TODAY found red flags from early condo sales in the building that experts say often indicate money laundering. Many of the buyers came from outside the U.S. and purchased units with LLCs, or limited liability companies, that can hide their identities. Mortgage loans on several units came from secret or questionable sources. The developer's own attorney used a trust account with an unidentified source of money to shell out more than $4 million in high-interest loans to early buyers at Champlain South.
Experts told USA TODAY that cutting corners on construction often accompanied money laundering. At Champlain South, engineers noted an improperly designed pool deck and improperly constructed support columns.
Reporters also found troubling evidence that the building’s decay emerged earlier and was ignored longer than had been known. Residents noted flooding in the garage in 1981, the year the tower opened. By 1996, according to permits for the work, contractors were making major repairs to the concrete in the garage ceiling, the underbelly of the pool deck.
Many of the problems were addressed in isolation and not as a major problem that could lead to collapse. And condo residents delayed repairs even after warnings of major structural concerns.
Rosello, who is featured as a main character in Netflix’s new documentary series "Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami," said he didn’t notice the problems discovered by USA TODAY. For him, he said, Champlain Tower South was a place where he could lead a lavish, drug-fueled life while staying under the radar.
“Viví la vida,” the millionaire drug smuggler said. “I lived the life there.”
In #CocaineCowboys: The Kings of Miami episode 2, the Miami Beach apartment that Pegy takes @Alexiae_Says to in 1987 was a unit he owned on the 5th floor of the Champlain Towers South — the Surfside condo that collapsed in June https://t.co/AwXnw47qX1 pic.twitter.com/JuBKWkmucI
— Billy Corben (@BillyCorben) August 10, 2021
'Drug capital of the world'
By the time Champlain Towers South broke ground in 1981, the Miami-Dade County morgue was overflowing with bodies. To keep up with demand, the medical examiner's office had to rent a refrigerated truck from Burger King to keep the cadavers on ice.
In the first seven months of 1981, the homicide count was 296. By the end of the year, the number had climbed to 621. More often than not, police blamed the assassination-style deaths on the Medellín Cartel’s drug business in Miami.
South Florida – which at the time became known as the "Drug Capital of the World"– also was dealing with one of the worst race riots in the state’s history and a Cuban refugee crisis. To understand how the building declined and fell from its inception, "timing is key," said Nicholas Griffin, who wrote a book exploring the pivotal era in Miami.
“This is all going on at exactly the time they are putting together the Surfside deal,” Griffin said. “So you can imagine how far down the bottom of the list honest inspections of potential building disasters would be. Seeds were planted that took 40 years to grow and then collapse.”
Jorge Valdes, who was not involved in Champlain South but helped build dozens of homes, apartment complexes and high-rises in the Miami region as a chief money launderer for the Medellín Cartel in the 1970s and early '80s, said cutting corners in construction while laundering drug money “wasn’t just common – it was expected.”
"The era we’re talking about is when Miami suddenly came out of the ashes. So how do you rush to fulfill the demand? You cut corners. You attached roofs with paper clips. You bribe the inspectors," Valdes said.
“You wanted to put up real estate as quickly as possible because the money was flowing. We could buy any building inspector at any given moment. There were no stringent codes. There were no money laundering laws.”
But Hurricane Andrew in August 1992 changed the game, Valdes said, specifically for people laundering drug money and constructing buildings on the cheap.
“Nobody thinks the building is gonna come down when you’re cutting corners, but now, especially after Surfside, I would pray for any building built before Andrew," he said.
Regardless of its foundation, the glitzy and swanky Champlain Towers still allured the rich and wild.
It was on the sand. Windows framed ocean views. It was discreet.
“All the attention was still on South Beach, so I could walk into an elevator knowing nobody would catch on to me,” Rosello said.
At the time, Rosello was smuggling cocaine for Augusto "Willie" Falcon and Salvator "Sal" Magluta. The pair, who started dealing drugs in 1978, had built the largest cocaine smuggling operation on the East Coast and one of the top five in the world.
Rosello's job then was to ship drugs from the Medellín and Cali cartels in Colombia and help distribute them across the United States. It was a lucrative business, amassing an estimated $2.1 billion by the time Rosello decided to switch from renting to buying inside Champlain Towers South.
In fact, he said, he was weeks away from purchasing the fifth-floor, two-bedroom condo he was renting under an alias when the whole empire came crumbling down.
In 1991, authorities indicted Rosello for his role in the cocaine operation. He ultimately tipped off DEA agents and U.S. marshals to the whereabouts of Magluta, who was hiding as a fugitive at his mansion on La Gorce Island in Miami Beach.
Rosello was convicted of cocaine trafficking as part of the Falcon and Magulta case. He testified at their trial and was sentenced to 24 years behind bars. He was released after serving less than five years.
“Who knows?” he said. “If I would have bought (the condo), my son, ‘little Peter,’ could have been the one living there at the time of the collapse.”
While he was in prison, problems at Champlain Towers South became more evident. Contractors were starting to make major repairs to the concrete in the garage ceiling under the pool deck. Fifteen years after the building opened, concrete at its base already was falling apart.
No one knew it at the time, but Champlain South was sinking at a rate of about 2 millimeters a year in the 1990s, according to a study of historical satellite data in 2020 by Shimon Wdowinski, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University. USA TODAY first reported on the study hours after the building collapsed.
Cracked walls or shifting foundations can be clues that sinking has affected the stability of a structure, experts said. Residents of the building might have noticed changes.
By that time, Rosello was long gone from Champlain Towers South. But he was still getting into trouble.
In 2007, he was arrested for having sex with an underage girl and put on 12 years' probation. He was arrested again in 2012 for violating that probation.
And in 2017, he was picked up during a traffic stop in South Florida with 2 kilos of cocaine that federal agents say he admitted he was going to sell. He is expected to be released from prison for that offense in February 2022.
Before his latest apprehension, Rosello had been filmed as a main character for the Netflix series, which aired earlier this year. The docuseries, directed by Billy Corben and produced by Alfred Spellman and David Cypkin, is about how drug lords used Miami to smuggle cocaine into the country.
But it wasn’t just Champlain South that was on the map for kingpins. Falcon’s mother, who is now deceased, lived next door in the North Tower– the collapsed tower’s twin.
“This place was important. So many stories,” Rosello said.
In between chuckles, he told a reporter his most “embarrassing memory” from his time at Champlain Towers South.
“I was at a club and took a girl home that night,” he said. “Little did I know that she had a boyfriend who followed us home. When we got upstairs, we did our thing and did some coke.”
But then her phone rang. Her boyfriend was downstairs.
“So I went down wearing what I was wearing: underwear and brown leather boots, waving a bat. That's it.”
“Talk about cocaine cowboy!”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Surfside condo's connection to cartel: 'Cocaine Cowboy' called it home