Santeria priest sentenced for role in Port Everglades sham cocaine sting


A Santeria priest who brought two of his followers together when one wanted help smuggling a large amount of cocaine was sentenced Monday to federal prison.

Ernesto Gonzalez, 46, played a minor role in an undercover sting set up by federal agents who pretended they were planning to move about $500,000 worth of cocaine through Port Everglades. The cocaine was fake, and one of Gonzalez's connections was a confidential informant working for the feds.

Five men have been charged in connection with the fake cocaine deal and the informant, identified by defense lawyers in court records as Jesus Garcia, is facing separate federal health-care fraud charges. Garcia is jailed without bond, accused of committing health-care fraud while he was working for the government as a confidential informant in the sham cocaine sting, Gonzalez's lawyer said.

During the sentencing hearing Monday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Gonzalez's lawyer Emmanuel Perez criticized federal authorities' actions and accused them of using a "rogue confidential informant" to ensnare his client — "an otherwise innocent person" — into participating in a major drug conspiracy.

Perez told the judge Gonzalez left his native Cuba for Miami when he was 28 for political reasons and so he could practice his Methodist faith. Gonzalez worked as a construction laborer, then as a concrete finisher, but developed health problems.

Gonzalez had been studying the Yoruba religion, better known as Santeria, and began practicing as a "babalao" or priest who charged practitioners small amounts to perform religious rites, Perez said.

Gonzalez "made the huge mistake" of introducing Garcia to Roberto Balseiro Jr., 30, of Davie, who has also pleaded guilty to his role in the cocaine sting and is scheduled for sentencing in January, the defense lawyer said.

"Mr. Garcia repeatedly approached Mr. Gonzalez in order to entice him into tapping into his religious contacts to find someone, anyone, willing to engage in a drug deal with Mr. Garcia. However, Mr. Garcia's purported beliefs and practice in this religion was merely a ruse to serve his own needs," Perez wrote in court records.

Garcia had pleaded guilty to a state drug trafficking crime in Miami-Dade County and was secretly working for law enforcement to try to get his punishment reduced, Perez wrote.

Gonzalez earns between $10,000 and $12,000 a year and his family receives food stamps, so he caved to temptation when Garcia offered him $4,000 to help retrieve "cocaine" that was supposedly being smuggled through Port Everglades, the lawyer told the judge.

"How much drugs did the government get off the streets? Zero," Perez told the judge, questioning the purpose of the Homeland Securities Investigations sting and labeling it "a crime completely and entirely created by the government."

Through a Spanish interpreter, Gonzalez apologized and said he "committed this terrible mistake."

Prosecutor Sean McLaughlin told the judge Gonzalez expected to make $25,000 from the first deal and thought it was the first of many. Gonzalez thought it was going to be an ongoing lucrative enterprise, the prosecutor said.

The prosecutor told the judge the investigation revealed issues with port security: "It was a little shocking how easy it was to offload [cocaine at the port] if you knew the right people."

U.S. District Judge William Zloch followed the prosecution's recommendation and sentenced Gonzalez to three years and 10 months in federal prison. Gonzalez was ordered to surrender to prison by Jan. 8. He may face deportation after he is released.

Federal authorities said the investigation was legitimate and led to the arrests of five men who were willing to involve themselves in what they believed was a real drug smuggling operation that would compromise port security and put drugs on the streets.

Michael Canada, 35, of Plantation; Lafayette Adams, 43, of Miami Gardens; and Dexter Loffman, 38, of Miami, have pleaded not guilty to related charges and are expected to go to trial next year.

Investigators said the sting began in March when an informant told investigators Gonzalez could smuggle drugs through the port. In April, Adams, a port worker, picked up a bag he thought contained 20 "bricks of cocaine" from a shipping container and delivered it to Canada, who took it to Balseiro, authorities said.

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