Tampa, FL – Senior U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington has sentenced seven Mexican and Ecuadorian nationals to federal prison for their roles in a plan to smuggle more than $20 million of cocaine from South America to Central America in a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. The individuals were sentenced to the following prison terms:
|Name||Age, Residence||Sentence Imposed|
|Luis Alberto Bran-Lopez||43, Oaxaca, Mexico||21 years, 10 months|
|Isaac Enriquez Oyando||34, Chiapas, Mexico||21 years, 10 months|
|Romeo Santos Hernandez||37, Paredon, Mexico||20 years|
|Juan Hernandez||45, Mexicali, Mexico||21 years, 10 months|
|John Dario Macias Agua||34, Ecuador||21 years, 10 months|
|Jaime Velez Arcentales||40, Manabi, Ecuador||21 years, 10 months|
|Eddy Anchundia Velez||32, Jaramillo, Ecuador||21 years, 10 months|
Bran-Lopez pleaded guilty on April 15, 2022. Enriquez-Oyando, Santos-Hernandez, Macias Agua, Velez Arcentales, and Anchundia Velez were convicted at trial on August 19, 2022. Juan Hernandez pleaded guilty on November 21, 2022.
According to court documents and trial evidence, these individuals were part of a seven-person crew smuggling 760 kilograms of cocaine from South America to Mexico. On January 14, 2021, aerial surveillance spotted a suspicious vessel in international waters more than 200 miles south of Huatulco, Mexico. A law enforcement detachment from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Steadfast interdicted the vessel and found the seven crew members in the process of trying to throw bales of cocaine overboard. Evidence was presented that the vessel departed South America and rendezvoused with a boat from Mexico to transport the cocaine to shore. However, the Mexican vessel experienced engine troubles, and all seven conspirators had to travel in the slower South American vessel until the Coast Guard interdicted them.
During the trial, the defendants from Mexico claimed that they were tricked into going on a drug trip and the defendants from Ecuador claimed they were adrift at sea and rescued shortly before the Coast Guard showed up. At trial, the jury heard evidence that investigators learned of a plan that one of the seven coconspirators would plead guilty and then provide false information to law enforcement exonerating the others. Bran-Lopez, who the evidence showed was the captain of the Mexican go-fast vessel that broke down during the smuggling operation, was the designated “fall guy.” He pleaded guilty and then testified for the defense that he tricked his codefendants into thinking they were going on a fishing trip because his family had been kidnapped. While at sea, his coconspirators found Macias Agua, Velez Arcentales, and Anchundia Velez adrift in another vessel. However, the timeline of events in Bran-Lopez’s testimony did not match evidence obtained from searches of cellphones and GPS data showing that he and his coconspirators were at sea days before he claimed the kidnapping happened. Trial evidence also showed that Juan Hernandez had a prior federal trafficking conviction, and at sentencing the court considered evidence of Anchundia Velez having a drug trafficking conviction in Ecuador that is pending appeal.
The Court found that each defendant obstructed justice through the scheme to have Bran-Lopez provide false information at trial. Bran-Lopez, specifically, obstructed justice when he gave false information to agents, and the codefendants obstructed justice when trying to benefit from Bran-Lopez’s trial testimony, knowing that it was false.
This case was investigated by the Panama Express Strike Force, an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) comprised of agents and analysts from the United States Coast Guard Investigative Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found at www.justice.gov/OCDETF. The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys David Pardo and Dan Baeza.