South Florida

Dock worker in Haiti pleads not guilty to U.S. drug conspiracy in ‘sugar boat’ case

The MV Manzanares with a Panamanian flag was seized by Haitian authorities after it was found to be carrying loads of cocaine and heroin in 2015. It is pictured here at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
The MV Manzanares with a Panamanian flag was seized by Haitian authorities after it was found to be carrying loads of cocaine and heroin in 2015. It is pictured here at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. Marine Traffic

A longshoreman implicated in a massive Haiti drug-smuggling operation pleaded not guilty Thursday to a narco-trafficking conspiracy charge in Miami federal court.

Gregory George, who was extradited to Miami last week, is the first and only defendant to face prosecution so far in the cocaine and heroin distribution case — but his real value might be as a possible witness for the feds. A federal magistrate judge, Edwin Torres, granted George a $250,000 bond based on a joint recommendation by prosecutor Kurt Lunkenheimer and the public defender’s office.

While the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami is leading the criminal prosecution, Justice Department lawyers are separately investigating allegations of wrongdoing by Drug Enforcement Administration agents who are suspected of bungling the so-called sugar boat case. The Miami Herald broke the story about the Justice Department’s probe of the bungled DEA case in August of last year.

George, who was jailed in Haiti for three years before his extradition, is expected to play a central role in the widening U.S. investigation into the Panamanian-flagged MV Manzanares case. The boat arrived in Port-au-Prince from Colombia in April 2015 hauling bags of imported sugar and between 700 to 800 kilos of cocaine and 300 kilos of heroin with an estimated U.S. street value of $100 million.

George, described as a lieutenant in a smuggling ring that operated out of Haiti’s private Terminal Varreux, was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of conspiring to distribute multiple kilos of Colombian cocaine as well as heroin from July 2013 to June 7, 2015, knowing the drugs would be imported into the United States.

In a previous interview with the Herald, George said there had been multiple attempts on his life while inside the Croix-des-Bouquets civil prison, where he was sometimes kept in isolation for his protection.

Sources familiar with his case say the most recent attempt on his life occurred over a week ago when he was beaten up inside the prison. They told the Herald that there have been at least a half-dozen attempts on his life, including one where he was locked in a van and tear-gassed during an authorized transfer. The incident occurred the same day, Aug. 17, 2018, the Herald published its investigation into the DOJ’s probe.

Coast Guard Cutter Thetis boat crew members rescue a sea turtle from entanglement in cocaine bales adrift in the Eastern Pacific, Nov. 19, 2017. The rescue was conducted during the cutter crew's 68-day law enforcement patrol.

While unloading the sugar from the Manzanares after its arrival in early April 2015, longshoremen stumbled across the hidden stash of drugs and a lawless free-for-all quickly unfolded. A host of people, including police officers assigned to Haiti’s National Palace and a judge, have been accused of grabbing the drugs. Also implicated was the former commander of Haiti’s anti-drug unit, Joris Mergelus. Mergelus was accused of taking bribes to hinder the investigation into the Manzanares case, which has become known as the “sugar boat” case. He has vehemently denied any links to drug traffickers.

Mergelus is also being accused of destroying evidence in the ongoing Manzanares drug smuggling investigation. Mergelus was removed from his post in 2017 by Haiti’s police chief, Michel-Ange Gédéon, and has since been assigned to a desk job at the Haiti National Police pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

The bungling of the sugar boat investigation came to light after two veteran DEA agents filed whistle-blower complaints, which triggered the Justice Department’s investigation into the effectiveness of the DEA’s drug-fighting efforts in Haiti. An initial review by the Office of Special Counsel found “a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” in the DEA’s Haiti office.

George, the longshoreman, allegedly was responsible for retrieving multiple kilos of cocaine and heroin from cargo vessels from Colombia that docked in Port-au-Prince. His nickname is Ti-Ketant, a nod to notorious Haitian cocaine kingpin Beaudouin “Jacques” Ketant, who had accused former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of accepting drug-related bribes before having his 27-year sentence in a U.S. prison cut in half.

Of 16 individuals arrested by the Haiti National Police in the Manzanares case, only George remained in jail. He had come under fire from Haitian businessmen implicated in the case. They accused him of lying.

Jay Weaver writes about bad guys who specialize in con jobs, rip-offs and squirreling away millions. Since joining the Miami Herald in 1999, he’s covered the federal courts nonstop, from Elian’s custody battle to A-Rod’s steroid abuse. He was on the Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2001. He and three Herald colleagues were Pulitzer Prize finalists for explanatory reporting in 2019 for a series on gold smuggled from South America to Miami.
Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.