Tampa, FL – Senior U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington has sentenced Luis Alberto Bran-Lopez (43, Oaxaca, Mexico) to 21 years and 10 months in federal prison for conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine while onboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. Bran-Lopez had pleaded guilty on April 15, 2022.
According to court documents, on January 14, 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter STEADFAST interdicted a go-fast vessel (GFV) carrying Bran-Lopez and his six co-conspirators in international waters about 212 nautical miles south of Huatulco, Mexico. The defendants were carrying approximately 760 kilograms of cocaine on the GFV. During the boarding of the GFV, Bran-Lopez told the USCG that he and his co-conspirators were fishing for sharks even though there was a lack of fishing equipment and neither ice nor bait on board.
According to testimony and court documents, investigators learned of a plan that one of the seven co-conspirators would plead guilty and then provide information to law enforcement exonerating the others. Bran-Lopez was that person, and he later told federal agents, while under a cooperation agreement, that he tricked his co-defendants into thinking they were going on a fishing trip when, in reality, the co-defendants were going on a smuggling trip that Bran-Lopez had to take because his family had been kidnapped. The court rejected this explanation and found that Bran-Lopez had obstructed the investigation by making materially false statements to law enforcement.
This case was investigated by the Panama Express Strike Force, an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) comprised of agents and analysts from the United States Coast Guard Investigative Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking and money laundering organizations and those primarily responsible for the nation’s drug supply. The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Dan Baeza.