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Feds catch convicted Miami lawyer on the lam for 27 years in Mexico

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.

Lopez-Castro failed to show up on Jan. 28, 1986, at a federal prison in Tallahassee, where he was to begin serving his sentence.

U.S. District Judge James W. Kehoe signed a warrant for Lopez-Castro’s arrest. He had been free on bonds totaling $260,000 while he appealed his conviction. He was disbarred after his conviction.

Lopez-Castro’s parents had pledged their home as part of the collateral for the bonds. He had surrendered his U.S. passport, but had been known to travel frequently to Costa Rica and Panama.

Federal agents searched Lopez-Castro’s home at 8100 Old Cutler Rd. for information about his disappearance. Prosecutors eventually seized the property, which was valued at $350,000.

At trial, Lopez-Castro’s wife, Paulette, sat through nearly every day of the proceedings. She also vanished, according to a Miami Herald story at the time. The couple had two children, Manuel, 2, and Natalia, 6.

After the lengthy trial, the federal jury convicted Lopez-Castro, then 33, and smuggler Fernandez’s brother-in-law, Gerardo Jorge Guevara, 42. The jury also acquitted a third defendant, William Vaughn, 64, but failed to reach a verdict on the two main defendants accused of helping the marijuana smuggler buy his way into their South Miami bank.

The jury deadlocked in their deliberations of Ray L. Corona, 37, former board chairman of Sunshine State Bank, and his father, Rafael L. Corona, 64, the bank’s former managing director. They were retried in 1986, convicted and sentenced to prison for 20 and five years, respectively.

Both Coronas were charged with taking $2 million from Fernandez, known on the street as La Mentirita or “The Little Liar,” and using the money to buy the Sunshine State Bank in May 1978. Fernandez’s interest in the bank was concealed; on paper, the bank was purchased by the wife of a Panamanian money launderer.

Before the first trial, Fernandez pleaded guilty to smuggling some 600,000 pounds of Colombian marijuana into the United States from 1977-84.

Fernandez, testifying against his co-defendants, told the jury how he filled shopping bags with cash and gave the money to the Coronas to buy the bank, and then asked them to conceal his ownership of it.

Fernandez was sentenced to 50 years on narcotics charges.