Back in the ‘80s, Miami lawyer Manuel Lopez-Castro was convicted for helping a marijuana smuggler flush with cash buy Sunshine State Bank during the heyday of drug trafficking and money laundering in South Florida.
But rather than surrender to start his 27-year prison sentence in early 1986, Lopez-Castro fled to various Latin American countries before settling in Mexico, where he eventually dropped the “Castro” in his last name, authorities say.
This week, the feds finally caught up with the longtime fugitive.
A team of U.S. marshals flew to Cancun after the agency recently obtained information placing Lopez-Castro, 61, in the resort city. On Tuesday, the marshals and Mexican national police coordinated a traffic stop to arrest him. He jumped out of his vehicle and ran, but didn’t get far.
Mexican authorities deported Lopez-Castro, who lied by saying he was a Mexican citizen but was actually a Cuban national naturalized in the United States in 1977. Mexican immigration agents escorted him on a flight Wednesday to Miami International Airport.
Lopez-Castro told agents that he was “barely getting by” while working in sales and traveling between Mexico and Guatemala for some unspecified business — yet he was living in a beautiful high-rise beachfront condo in Cancun.
On Thursday, Lopez-Castro, slender with a full head of black hair, stood in Miami federal court where he was convicted at trial in October 1985. His defense attorney, William Tunkey, said his client was stopped by Mexican police purportedly because of an “irregularity” over the ownership of his vehicle, then jailed and deported as a U.S. citizen without any formal extradition hearing.
“He was kidnapped and brought here,” Tunkey told Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman, who dryly commented, “I find it very interesting.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Tamen made it clear that a “bond is out of the question” because Lopez-Castro was already sentenced and jumped bail.
After fleeing in January 1986, Lopez-Castro was suspected of traveling to Spain, then Costa Rica, Argentina, Venezuela, Panama and finally Mexico. His case was considered “cold,” until it was reassigned to U.S. marshals who specialize in foreign fugitives.
The marshals worked with the U.S. State Department in Mexico and the Mexican federal police, who did surveillance of possible associates, friends and family members of Lopez-Castro.
“On several occasions, a person believed to be the wanted suspect was seen,” according to Barry Golden, a Miami spokesman for the Marshals Service. “However, with such an extraordinary amount of time passed, they could not be sure.”
That’s when investigators hatched the plan to stop Lopez-Castro as he left the Cancun condo in a vehicle with relatives. Mexican authorities had already learned that he had lied about his status as a Mexican citizen, uncovering that he had obtained a fraudulent Mexican birth certificate a decade ago.
At trial, Lopez-Castro was convicted of racketeering and money laundering for helping a client — big-time marijuana smuggler Jose Antonio Fernandez — buy a majority interest in Sunshine State Bank in South Miami. The lawyer also was convicted of assisting the bank’s top executives, co-defendants Ray and Rafael Corona, with laundering the smuggler’s drug profits.