South Florida

Colombian woman swept up in bribery plot convicted of cocaine trafficking

A Coast Guard Cutter Valiant crew member offloads a bale of cocaine at Station Fort Lauderdale, Sept. 27, 2017.
A Coast Guard Cutter Valiant crew member offloads a bale of cocaine at Station Fort Lauderdale, Sept. 27, 2017.

Before a cocaine-smuggling trial got underway in Miami, federal prosecutors confronted a thorny problem: whether to call two cooperating witnesses suspected of plotting to bribe the sole remaining defendant so they could testify against her and possibly lower their prison sentences.

After investigating the two Colombians who had already pleaded guilty, prosecutors removed one from their witness list but called the other to the stand.

In the end, their decision paid off.

Yina Maria Castaneda Benavidez — the only defendant to go to trial of 10 initially charged in the massive narcotics case — was convicted Tuesday of playing a supporting role in providing transportation for a Colombian syndicate accused of conspiring to ship 20 tons of cocaine into the United States. The other nine defendants pleaded guilty to the main conspiracy charge before her trial.

To find Castaneda guilty, the 12-person jury concluded she conspired to distribute at least five kilos of Colombian cocaine in 2015, knowing it would be imported into this country.

Castaneda now faces more than 20 years in prison at her sentencing Dec. 17 before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, who had warned the prosecutors about using the two cooperating witnesses because of his concerns about their tainting the trial.

Over the summer, prosecutors had learned that a brazen scheme was being concocted by convicted Colombians Jefferson Xavier Bravo Espinosa and Julio Armando Belalcazar Estacio to bribe the defendant to go to trial — simply to give them the chance to testify against her.

The potential payoff for them serving as snitches: Reduced sentences. The potential payoff for her: From $1 million up to $10 million in bribes, but with the downside that she might spend more time in prison herself if she was convicted.

But at Castaneda’s one-week trial, the prosecutors only called Belalcazar, concluding he was uninvolved in the bribery scheme. They suspected that Bravo was involved, however.

During cross-examination, Castaneda’s defense attorney, Erick Cruz, asked Belalcazar about whether he plotted with Bravo to squeeze his client. Belalcazar denied it, and he proved to be a valuable witness for prosecutors Brian Shack and Joseph Schuster.

The strange snitching twist came to light as the cocaine case — built upon loads confiscated at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard — headed for trial this fall. Both Bravo and Belalcazar face up to life in prison — though the latter is likely to get more lenient punishment because of his testimony.

Ironically, Castaneda was clueless about the plot to bribe her, according to her lawyer, Cruz. And her intention was to go to trial anyway to fight the trafficking-conspiracy charge, he said.

Cruz and his client said they learned about the alleged bribery plot from federal prosecutors. They had 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 still in custody — along with Castaneda.

The FDC, which 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.