Smuggling operation brought drugs and people from Bahamas to Key Largo

A federal judge has sentenced the leader of an operation that smuggled large amounts of drugs and migrants from the Bahamas to Key Largo to 10 years in prison.

Things started going south for Manuel De La Caridad Riesgo-Penate, 55, in early March when he lost a shipment of cocaine and marijuana to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations agents who stopped a go-fast boat about 21 nautical miles east of Key Largo.

On the deck of the vessel were bundles of burlap sacks. As agents approached the boat, one of the men on board tossed a purple backpack into the ocean, according to court documents. The burlap sacks contained 800 kilograms of marijuana. Agents were able to retrieve the backpack, which contained 6 kilos of cocaine, federal prosecutors say.

The two men on the vessel told agents they were paid $15,000 each to bring the drugs from Bimini to Key Largo. The man who paid them, prosecutors say, was Riesgo-Penate. They met at his Blue Heron Lane home in Key Largo to discuss the job days earlier, according to a court document Riesgo-Penate signed in August when he agreed to plead guilty to two counts of drug smuggling and one human smuggling count.

He was originally indicted on four drug counts and 11 human smuggling counts.

After agents caught the two men hauling his coke and weed shipment, another man, who was an informant cooperating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, was contacted by Riesgo-Penate about bringing drugs from the Bahamas to Key Largo in a go-fast boat.

“The Defendant complained to the [informant] about having lost the previously mentioned shipment of narcotics on March 3, 2017,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Marcet wrote in the court statement.

Riesgo-Penate introduced the informant to a man named David Menejia Manso, 42, and said he would be joining him in the Bahamas to pick up the drugs.

On April 5, Riesgo-Penate drove the informant and Manso from Key Largo to Miami. En route, Riesgo called someone in the Bahamas, and the conversation made clear Manso and the informant would be picking up more than drugs.

“During the drive, the Defendant made a phone call to an individual in the Bahamas, during which the Defendant confirmed that ‘ten conch chowders’’ — which was code for ten illegal aliens — would be ready for the [informant] and Manso to pick up in Bimini and bring to the United States,” Marcet wrote. “The individual in the Bahamas confirmed that the aliens were ready to be transported, and further stated that there m ay be narcotics to be transported as well.”

Manso and the informant departed in a speed boat for Bimini, and Riesgo-Penate went back to Key Largo.

On April 9, a man in the Bahamas — not named in court documents — paid the informant $40,000 to smuggle 10 migrants to Key Largo — four Jamaicans, five Haitians and one person from Gambia.

The Bahamian also gave the two men a brick of heroin. The cash, a portion of which the Bahamian instructed was for Riesgo-Penate, and the drugs were stored below the deck of the go-fast boat.

The informant and Manso drove their boat to an “onshore rendezvous point” where they picked up the human cargo. Later that night, the boat set a course for Key Largo.

A Customs and Border Protection boat intercepted the go-fast five nautical miles off Key Largo. Before the Customs crew pulled up beside the speed boat, Manso tossed a black bag. Agents did not recover it, but the informant said it contained the heroin and cash.

Manso pleaded guilty in June to one count of conspiracy to encourage “an alien to enter the United States,” one count of human smuggling and one count of aiding and assisting “certain aliens to enter the United States.”

Federal Judge Jose E. Martinez sentenced him to five years in prison on Aug. 10.