Suspect in cocaine smuggling case is now a fugitive

One of the two men charged in a cocaine smuggling operation that ended with a boat chase and large manhunt in Key Largo last summer is now officially a fugitive.

U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King issued the order on Jan. 3 for Carlos Leopoldo Alvarez, 29, of Miami. Federal agents chased Alvarez and Mario Brand, 32, also of Miami, on foot right after they docked a Grady White cabin cruiser behind a canal-front house in the Sexton Cove subdivision on July 14.

Brand was caught soon after he ran, but Alvarez got away. Multiple agencies were involved with the manhunt that afternoon. Until this week, the government did not reveal whether Alvarez was in custody. King states in his order that a warrant for Alvarez’s arrest was issued on Oct. 17.

Brand originally pleaded not guilty to several cocaine smuggling, dealing and conspiracy charges on which a grand jury indicted him in July. He was facing several life sentences if a jury convicted him during a trial. However, he agreed during a Nov. 1 hearing to plead guilty to one count of importation of five kilograms of cocaine. In exchange for his guilty plea, the U.S. Attorney’s Office dropped the other counts.

Despite the plea deal, Brand is still looking at a minimum of 10 years in prison, according to court documents. He is scheduled to be sentence in federal court in Key West on Feb. 6 at 10 a.m.

According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrest affidavit, Brand and Alvarez were on board the Grady White on July 14 as it made its way back from the Bahamas with a cargo of 32 kilograms of cocaine. A crew on a flats skiff met the Grady about two miles offshore of Key Largo, where the drug packages were transferred to the smaller vessel.

The transaction was being watched by agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations. Agents chased both vessels. The flats boat crew dumped the coke into the mangroves. Agents recovered the drugs but the skiff’s crew escaped.

DEA agents stationed in the Bahamas were tipped off that the Grady was leaving Freeport with the contraband. The agents alerted DEA and Customs colleagues in South Florida.

Before invoking his right to remain silent and to have an attorney, Brand told agents he was hired for $14,000 to be the Grady White’s on-board mechanic on its trip to the Bahamas to pick up the cocaine and on the way back.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204