South Florida

Snitches’ brazen bribery scheme could backfire on them in Miami drug case

Coast Guard Cutter Valiant crew member offloads a bale of cocaine at Station Fort Lauderdale, Sept. 27, 2017. A major cocaine-smuggling conspiracy case is headed for trial in Miami.
Coast Guard Cutter Valiant crew member offloads a bale of cocaine at Station Fort Lauderdale, Sept. 27, 2017. A major cocaine-smuggling conspiracy case is headed for trial in Miami.

Drug snitches are a dime a dozen in Miami, with their goal typically to spend less time behind bars.

But two convicted drug traffickers turned prosecution witnesses in a massive cocaine smuggling case also are apparently willing to put money where their mouths are — lots of money. A federal court hearing in Miami Friday revealed a brazen scheme concocted by Colombians Jefferson Xavier Bravo Espinosa and Julio Armando Belalcazar Estacio to bribe another defendant — simply to give them the chance to testify against her at trial.

The potential payoff for them: Reduced sentences.

The potential payoff for her: From $1 million up to $10 million in bribes, according to her defense attorney, but with the downside that she might spend more time in prison herself if she was convicted.

The strange snitching twist came to light in a massive narcotics distribution case that has already seen nine of the 10 defendants plead guilty. Bravo and Belalcazar are cooperating with the feds after both pleaded guilty to conspiring to transport hundreds of kilos of cocaine into the United States — loads that were confiscated at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. They now face up to life in prison — though the scheme described in open court and court documents suggests they were angling for far more lenient punishment.

The payoff plan could now backfire on them: The sole defendant, Yina Maria Castaneda Benavidez, who was supposed to face trial alone on Friday, was clueless about their plot to bribe her, according to her lawyer, Erick Cruz. And her intention was to go to trial anyway to fight the trafficking-conspiracy charge, Cruz said.

“She had no idea that this was going on,” he told the Miami Herald after the federal court hearing. “It caught her and everybody else by surprise.”

Cruz and his client, whose trial has now been postponed until September, said they learned about the alleged bribery plot from federal prosecutors. They recently found out about it from a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who got a tip from a paralegal, who somehow picked up on the scheme at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. That is where the two Colombian cooperating witnesses, Bravo and Belalcazar, are in custody — along with Castaneda.

The FDC, a towering concrete building that mainly holds defendants who are awaiting trial or have pleaded guilty with cooperation deals, is notorious for inmates swapping dirt on one another to gain some ground against a long sentence.

In a court filing, Cruz said the two Colombian witnesses in the drug-trafficking case discussed their planned testimony about his client with other FDC inmates, and that they agreed to deposit money in her commissary account for the rest of her incarceration if she went to trial, was convicted and they received a sentence reduction.

Cruz has asked U.S. District Judge Robert Scola to disallow their appearances as government witnesses because “their desperation” to obtain a sentence reduction by testifying against Castaneda “impairs” her due process rights.

“The court should sanction [Bravo] and [Belalcazar] by not permitting them to testify at [Castaneda’s] trial,” Cruz wrote in the court filing. “Their conspiracy to devise a scheme in which they would bribe [Castaneda] to go to trial so that they could testify against her and receive a sentence reduction is novel, even by South Florida standards.”

Initially, prosecutors Joseph Schuster and Brian Shack said they still wanted to use the two Colombians as cooperating witnesses against her, but Judge Scola warned them that it may not be possible under the circumstances.

“I don’t know how you can come to that conclusion,” the judge said, raising the obvious problem of the two witnesses’ credibility and integrity.

“I want everyone who looks at this matter to get to the bottom of it to make sure these proceedings are not tainted in any way,” Scola told both sides during Friday’s hearing.

Schuster said he spoke with the two Colombian cooperating witnesses, but didn’t disclose what they said. The prosecutor also said he and his colleague, Shack, still need to talk with the cooperating defendants’ attorneys.

“We take this very seriously and are acting as such,” Schuster told the judge. “We moved on it as soon as we found out.”

If the prosecutors decide not to use the two Colombian witnesses at Castaneda’s trial — or the judge blocks their testimony — they have at least two other defendants with plea deals who could fill in for them, according to court records.

One veteran Miami defense attorney said the bribery plot exposed how many federal cases rely on prosecutors horse-trading with convicted criminals, who often are rewarded with more lenient sentences.

“The federal system is so dependent on snitches that it has really lost its way,” Miami attorney David O. Markus said. “As crazy as this story is, it’s hard to be surprised when the government is able to offer snitches their freedom in exchange for their testimony. It’s time to rethink whether this should be permitted.”

U.S. Coast Guard offloads more than 3,500 pounds of cocaine and 50 pounds of marijuana at Base Miami Beach, Tuesday, Oct, 16, 2018. The drugs were seized from suspected smuggling vessels off the coasts of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Aruba.