Guatemalan Politician Sentenced in San Diego as Part of Large South American Cocaine Pipeline

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Sergio Fernando Cifuentes Sagastume had carved out a decent life for himself in Guatemala. After spending some of his teenage years in the United States, he ran several businesses involving construction, dairy cattle and cars. A married father of four, he was also the vice mayor of a city of some 60,000 residents.

But Cifuentes, a 41-year-old known to some by the nickname “Gordo,” was also involved for at least a year in moving cocaine between South America and the U.S., he admitted in a plea agreement earlier this year.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns sentenced Cifuentes to seven years and five months in federal prison. While prosecutors argued Cifuentes took part in the trafficking conspiracy from “a position of power” as the vice mayor of the Guatemalan city of Zacapa, his attorney argued he never abused his political influence as part of the drug-trafficking scheme.

Either way, Burns described Cifuentes as “one of the shot callers” in an organization that was moving thousands of pounds of cocaine, mostly from Colombia, via small boats in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The charges against him stemmed from a 26-person indictment handed down in 2017 alleging an international conspiracy to distribute and ship drugs aboard boats. As of Wednesday, at least 15 additional defendants had been sentenced, most for periods between four and six years.

Burns said Cifuentes, who is expected to receive credit for the several years he served in Guatemalan custody awaiting extradition, received the longest sentence of any defendant yet because of his major role in “dozens of transactions.”

According to the indictment, Cifuentes was the third highest-ranking conspirator involved in the scheme. The second highest-ranking defendant in the case is Ecuadorian citizen Beatriz Cristina Barreiro Quiñónez, who was extradited to the U.S. in August following her 2017 arrest in Guatemala. She pleaded guilty last week to one count of the indictment.

The name of the lead defendant in the case has not yet been unsealed, though Guatemalan authorities arrested another man on the same U.S. charges as Barreiro on the same day. Guatemalan national police said his alias was “El Rey del Mar,” or “The King of the Sea.”

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Allison Murray said Wednesday in court that there are also cases in other districts related to the one in San Diego. One, she said, was a case prosecuted in Florida involving a go-fast boat intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in early 2017.

The capture of that boat, laden with 1,900 pounds of cocaine and heading north in the Pacific a few hundred miles west of Guatemala, is what led to Cifuentes’ downfall, according to his attorney.

“Text messages on Mr. Cifuentes Sagastume’s Blackberry phone account linked him to this shipment,” defense attorney Nate Crowley wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “Mr. Cifuentes Sagastume’s role was to buy the cocaine from the Colombian seller, have it extracted from shipping containers or smaller boats, and sell it to buyers, typically from Mexico, who would continue moving the cocaine to its next destination.”

In a hearing earlier this year, prosecutors said Cifuentes was also linked to another cocaine shipment of more than 150 pounds seized at a Guatemalan port. “There are lawful intercepts of the defendant discussing the cocaine shipment logistics specifically, including coordinates, on the satellite telephone,” Murray told a judge at the previous hearing.

Cifuentes, who spent some of his high school years in Massachusetts, addressed the judge in English, telling him he made a mistake and dishonored his family.

“Family is love, drug people is not,” Cifuentes said. He told Burns he would never become involved in the drug business again. “I know the U.S. is watching.”

According to the transcript of an earlier hearing, prosecutors described Cifuentes playing his part as a coordinator in the trafficking conspiracy from “a position of power” due to his vice mayoral position.

Crowley argued in sentencing documents that his client did not abuse his position as an elected official.

“There is no evidence Mr. Cifuentes Sagastume used his political power to commit the offense here and he denies using his power for any corrupt purposes,” Crowley wrote. “It appears he truly kept his two worlds separated.”

According to Crowley, his client’s time in custody both in Guatemala and in the U.S. “has been atypically challenging.”

Cifuentes “has suffered from extreme fear of being targeted for killing by characters attached to this conspiracy, both prior to extradition and once in the United States,” Crowley wrote in sentencing documents.

Cifuentes made the same argument himself Wednesday, telling the judge, “They put a hit on me.”

Citing several factors, Burns gave Cifuentes a sentence that was slightly less time than prosecutors recommended, but more than the six years his attorney asked for. If Cifuentes receives credit for the time he served in Guatemala awaiting extradition, he could be released from prison in about 18 months.

Source: The San Dieogo Union – Tribune