‘Queen-pin’ pleads guilty in Miami drug-trafficking case tied to Mexico, Colombia

Miami HeraldApril 24, 2013 

Sandra Avila Beltran, the dark-haired Mexican beauty dubbed the “Queen of the Pacific,” has pleaded guilty to a drug-trafficking charge in Miami, closing the curtain on the once celebrity-like role of the reputed cocaine smuggler.

Avila, 52, admitted Tuesday in federal court that she helped her former boyfriend, a one-time Colombian cartel boss, evade prosecution for cocaine importation and distribution charges in the United States. She pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to his conspiracy crimes, for which the ex-boyfriend, Juan Diego Espinosa Ramirez, was ultimately convicted.

Avila, who stood out in a narco-trafficking world dominated by macho men, avoided a potential life sentence if convicted on the same conspiracy offenses at trial next month. With her plea, she now faces up to 15 years in prison at her sentencing before U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore. But she is expected to receive a much lesser sentence, including about six years for her time already served in a Mexican prison before her extradition to Miami last August.

“Both sides felt the charge of accessory after the fact would be reflective of a fair and just result,” Avila’s attorney, Howard Schumacher, told The Miami Herald on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the U.S. attorney’s office filed a factual statement signed by Avila that accompanied her plea agreement, which depicted her in a supporting role in the former boyfriend’s cocaine-smuggling syndicate.

“Between approximately 2002 and 2004, Avila-Beltran provided financial assistance for travel, lodging and other expenses to [Espinosa] with the intention of preventing or hindering his arrest for drug-trafficking crimes,” the statement said.

Avila chose to cut a plea deal after a federal magistrate judge last month rejected her lawyers’ motion to dismiss the indictment filed against her, Espinosa and others in 2004.

Her attorneys claimed in a court filing that a federal prosecutor and drug agent were aware that signed declarations by codefendants — including Avila’s ex-boyfriend — were “riddled with falsehoods and misstatements.” Yet Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Morales submitted the evidence to Mexican authorities in 2010 to persuade them to extradite Avila, according to her defense lawyers, Stephen Ralls and Schumacher.

Morales’ successor in the case, prosecutor Cynthia Wood, said in court papers that the allegations against him were “false” and “without foundation.”

Avila’s reputation as the Queen of the Pacific was gained by her dominant role in the powerful Sinaloa cartel, her romantic relationship with the former Colombian drug trafficker and her influence over ocean supply routes.

Mexicans, along with the news media, have long been fascinated with Avila, who was arrested in her country in 2007. They constantly followed details of her taste for high fashion, gourmet food and beauty secrets. One rumor that made the rounds: A doctor visited her while she was jailed in Mexico to administer her Botox injections.

Last summer, a Mexican court and foreign secretary granted her extradition on the U.S. narco-trafficking indictment, which has links to a cocaine deal in Chicago and a cocaine seizure in Manzanillo more than a decade ago.

Avila’s attorneys claimed that Morales, the prosecutor, pressured her ex-boyfriend, Espinosa, to sign a March 2010 declaration implicating her in the Chicago deal -- without his defense attorney present. They said his declaration was instrumental in her extradition to the United States.

Espinosa said in the declaration that Avila participated in a 100-kilo cocaine shipment with a trafficker named Juan Carlos Lopez Correa in 2001. And that after the cocaine was delivered to associates in Chicago, Lopez Correa became responsible for the debt on the deal. The reason: Drug Enforcement Administration agents had seized cash from a courier that was meant to pay off Lopez Correa’s debt.

On Sept. 14, 2001, federal agents intercepted a telephone call in which Espinosa, Avila and Lopez Correa allegedly discussed the outstanding payment on the Chicago transaction. During the call, Espinosa asked Lopez Correa to pay for the shipment.

On Dec. 10, 2001, agents recorded another phone call in which Espinosa and Lopez Correa discussed an “upcoming cocaine shipment” that would be used to pay off the latter’s debt on the Chicago deal, according to court records. Avila did not participate in that phone call.

The current prosecutor in the case, Wood, pointed out that Espinosa’s declaration was similar to the factual statement he and his defense attorney signed in June 2009, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.

Espinosa, who initially received a 22-year prison sentence, saw it cut by half for his cooperation. In his plea statement, Espinosa said that he and Avila “took part” in the Chicago cocaine deal, court records show.

Between September and December 2001, Espinosa “made attempts to collect payment for the 100 kilos of cocaine from [the] purchaser in Miami,” according to the plea statement. “Unbeknownst to [Espinosa], the purchaser was arrested by [the DEA in Miami] in early December 2001 and became a cooperating source.”

It turned out that the cooperating source was Lopez Correa, also known as Pedro Juan Osorio, court records show. In 2003, he was sentenced to two months in prison after pleading guilty and cooperating with authorities.

Both Espinosa and Avila were also implicated in a Colombian shipment of nine tons of cocaine intended for Mexico and the United States in December 2001, according to Espinosa’s plea statement. Authorities seized the shipment after it was transferred from a Colombian vessel to a Mexican tuna boat off the Pacific port of Manzanillo.

Espinosa said in his statement that he “was going to participate in the storing and distribution of the cocaine once it arrived in Mexico. However, the load of cocaine was seized because DEA agents in Miami had learned about the upcoming shipment from the cooperating source.”

The cooperating source, who had helped set up the shipment, “was going to use his earnings from this cocaine shipment to pay his debt from the 100 kilos he had received in Chicago earlier in 2001,” according to Espinosa’s statement. Lopez Correa was not identified as that source in Espinosa’s statement.

At Avila’s bond hearing in August, her attorney, Ralls, challenged the DEA agent investigating the case, questioning the integrity of the indictment against his client -- especially the alleged link between the Chicago deal and Manzanillo seizure.

“Both of those [incidents] go together in our investigation,” DEA Special Agent Stephen Kepper testified.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service