Jailed: two fugitives allegedly tied to Colombian drug-trafficking case

U.S. Coast Guard officers unload cocaine at the base on Miami Beach on Nov. 20, 2015.
U.S. Coast Guard officers unload cocaine at the base on Miami Beach on Nov. 20, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard District 7

Two men once classified as fugitives in Miami federal court records are in custody and have been arraigned in a Colombian drug-trafficking case that began in 2011 with the purchase of a plane in Panama to transport 800 kilos of cocaine from Colombia to Honduras.

Luis Fernando Galeano, lead defendant in the case, and co-defendant Carlos Francisco Álvarez Rodríguez, are awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy to possess — with intent to distribute — cocaine on board a U.S.-registered aircraft, according to court records.

The case is the latest in a series of drug-trafficking busts that involve cooperation between U.S. and Colombian authorities. The cases show that after indictments or criminal complaints are filed in federal courts in Miami or elsewhere in the country, Colombian authorities arrest and then extradite suspects linked to those cases.

It is not clear from court documents if the defendants in the case were in South Florida when arrested or whether they were detained in Colombia and then sent here for prosecution. One of the defense attorneys in the case said he understood that all the defendants had been detained in Colombia and then sent to the United States to stand trial.

Most of the attorneys for the five defendants in the case — Galeano, Álvarez, Esteban Sierra Echeverri, Hector Alonso Cañaveral Mendoza and John Elkin Marín Gutierréz — could not be reached for comment. But the attorney for Cañaveral Mendoza, Louis Casuso, said his client pleaded guilty on Wednesday and is awaiting sentencing in April by U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno.

“My client was a minor player in the case,” said Casuso, adding that he hoped to persuade Moreno to pronounce a “fair sentence.”

The case began five years ago when U.S. and Colombian investigators learned through phone intercepts that Galeano and Cañaveral Mendoza discussed the purchase of a U.S.-registered Piper 350 Panther Navajo to haul about 800 kilos of cocaine from Colombia to Honduras, according to court records.

The plane was eventually purchased by a drug-trafficking cartel member and flown from the United States to Panama to begin preparing the smuggling venture, court documents say.

“On August 22, 2011,” a court record says, “five members of the [Drug-Trafficking Organization], including Galeano Escobar, Cañaveral Mendoza, and Marín Gutiérrez, traveled from Bogotá, Colombia, to Panama City, Panama to inspect [the plane].”

During a meeting in Panama City, the defendants and an informant who was there at the behest of U.S. authorities discussed ways for the plane to evade Panamanian radar in order to safeguard the cocaine, court documents say.

Marín Gutierrez was to serve as pilot and fly over Colombian and Venezuelan territory “for security reasons,” the records show.

Despite all the careful planning, the smuggling venture failed.

In December 2011, Marín Gutierrez flew the plane from Panama to Necoclí, a town in the Colombian department of Antioquia — not far from the Panamanian border.

“Marín Gutiérrez flew… from Panama to Necoclí, Colombia,” according to a court document. “Marín Gutiérrez was instructed to land in a clandestine airstrip in Necoclí to load the aircraft with cocaine, and then fly to Central America. Lawfully intercepted telephone calls revealed that during the attempt [the airplane’s] engine overheated and the aircraft was forced to return to Panama without the cocaine.”

Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @AlfonsoChardy