At 84 years old, Antonio Bascaro neither looks nor sounds like a hardened criminal. Like many old men, he spends his days listening to the radio and doing his crossword puzzles. He asks me about the weather, and makes the kind of jokes my grandfather would make.
But unlike most seniors, he’s doing these things from the inside of his prison cell, and he’s talking and joking with me during a 15 minute phone call from FCI Miami.
Bascaro has been in prison for almost 40 years (38 and a half, actually, if you’re keeping track like he is), which makes him the longest serving cannabis prisoner in the United States.
That’s almost half his life that he’s spent in jail for a first time, nonviolent marijuana offense. He’s eligible for release in June of next year, but his advocates say that is too little too late.
“I make a mistake, I am paying for it,” he tells me through heavily accented English. “That's it.”
“I liked the action”
Bascaro’s journey into the so-called criminal underworld was unconventional. He was born in Cuba, and after graduating from high school, he quit medical school and joined the Cuban military service.
This was in 1952, right before the Cuban Revolution, and while he was flying planes for the Cuban navy, the rebels, led by Fidel Castro, tried to lure him over to their side. He refused, and for some reason, he didn’t go the way of all the others who did: death.
Instead, he was bounced around to various Cuban prisons, then mistakenly released, claimed asylum in Uruguay, and was recruited by the CIA to help overthrow the Castro government.
He was sent to Miami for training, then stationed in Nicaragua, ready to take part in the Bay of Pigs invasion. However, it failed before he left the country, and rather than go back to Miami, he headed to Guatemala and started a family. After a difficult divorce, Bascaro was looking for a way to support his children financially, so he contacted his old Bay of Pigs buddies in Miami and started smuggling marijuana with them.
“I liked the emotion, you know, I liked the action,” he said, “so every time they asked for help, to volunteer for something, I jumped in.”
Of course, the money didn’t hurt either.
After two years, he returned to Guatemala and got a respectable job, but by that time, the government had caught onto the whole operation.
Bascaro was taken into custody in Guatemala in 1980, and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he was convicted of conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and sentenced to 70 years in federal prison.
He admits that he isn’t innocent, but says he definitely wasn’t the kingpin they made him out to be. His sentence was so lengthy because he refused to give up other names, something that is far from unique in conspiracy cases.
“There's a lot of things wrong, you know, a lot of things wrong,” he told Civilized, “because I am not a leader, I am not the owner, I was just one person.”
Over 38 years on, he’s the only person from his conspiracy case who is still in prison.
“I stay away from everybody”
With almost four decades in prison under his belt, Bascaro has found the secret formula to make his days bearable. He says it was a little easier for him than most because his military background made him accustomed to a life of routine.
“I’m keeping the same lines as a prisoner as I was in the military,” he said.
He doesn’t work, because he’s too old, and instead spends his time reading, listening to the news, and doing puzzles by himself in his cell.
“I stay away from everybody, I don't join no groups,” he said. “I do whatever I can do, but I don't socialize too much with the persons here. That has been my way of life.”
He is biding his time until next June, when he’ll finally be released, but encourages people to write into the attorney general to see if he can get that bumped up a little.
“I'm supposed to be back at home a long time ago, but I'm still here.”