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Tony Bascaro, a former Cuban pilot and military officer who joined Miami’s then-burgeoning illicit cannabis trade in the late 1970s, has been in prison since 1980. His imprisonment for the nonviolent crime of cannabis smuggling shines a light on the continued injustices of the Drug War – and the thin yet real hopes for those who have been incarcerated as a result.

The back story

Bascaro started out as a loyalist to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown by forces loyal to Fidel Castro in 1958. After having been recruited by the CIA to assist in Castro’s ouster, and after missing out on participating in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, Bascaro drifted down to Guatemala in pursuit of a woman with whom he’d fallen in love.

By 1977, Bascaro had divorced and moved to Miami, then the drug capital of the Western world. Bascaro, who had served as a pilot in various capacities, including as a crop duster and fighter pilot, was recruited as a cannabis smuggler and offloader.

According to Bascaro, the exhilaration of the drug-smuggling life was comparable to serving in the military.

It was exciting… I wasn’t fighting in the war, but it was something similar.

The excitement of the life Bascaro was living was evidently not meant to last. American authorities caught wind of his operation in 1978, and in 1980 he was tried and convicted of cannabis possession.

What lengthened his sentence, however, was that he refused to provide prosecutors with additional information regarding his operation – while some of his cohorts did not.

Harsh punishment

Bascaro was sentenced to a total of 60 years in prison, a number arrived at by prosecutors in several different ways.

First, members of Bascaro’s operation offered prosecutors detailed descriptions of both their own roles and the roles of others in the enterprise, including Bascaro himself. That decision served to subtract years from their own sentences while also adding years to Bascaro’s.

Secondly, and more broadly, the rise of mandatory minimum sentencing in the early 1980s, coupled with the excesses of the Drug War more broadly, contributed to a sentence for Bascaro that is perceived as having been more stringent than was necessary.

According to Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the sentence handed down to Bascaro was “ridiculous.”

Is the fact that Mr. Bascaro didn’t cooperate worth 28 years? It’s not… Nothing justifies that difference.

Tony Bascaro, hope for an early release?

As the Drug War’s overreach is slowly scaled back and the regulations imposed during its height are corrected, there is a small yet renewed hope that Tony Bascaro’s sentence may be dramatically reduced.

For starters, the 81-year-old has earned a release date of 2019 because the details of his case fall under the pre-Drug War rules. His family and advocates, however, look for him to be out even sooner.

There is reason to believe that it could happen. President Obama has set about commuting the sentences of hundreds of nonviolent felons, many of whom were convicted and imprisoned for crimes related to the War on Drugs.

Bascaro’s appeals to the administration have been denied, though he will have another crack at clemency next year.

Many in the law enforcement community remain bewildered by Bascaro’s continued incarceration. Among that group is Nickolas Geeker, the former U.S. Attorney in Florida responsible for successfully prosecuting Bascaro all those years ago.

With what the president has done with the sentences of other people dealing in more substantial, harder drugs that Tony Bascaro was, why he would still be in there I really have no explanation.

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