Nine people accused of hauling more than 5,000 pounds of marijuana off of a boat from Mexico that landed at a San Mateo County beach earlier this month are now facing federal drug smuggling charges, according to court records.
Charges by the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office were dismissed Wednesday after a federal criminal complaint filed in San Francisco on Tuesday charged them with possession of and conspiracy to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.
Five of the defendants had already pleaded no contest to the state charges and were sentenced to one year in jail, but the federal charges carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
If convicted of the federal charges, whether their jail sentence for the state charges would be served concurrently with the federal sentence will be up to the federal sentencing judge, San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Al Serrato said today.
The defendants were arrested Aug. 1 after an investigation by federal authorities indicated that a boat smuggling marijuana from Mexico would be landing on the San Mateo County coast to unload.
The 40-foot panga boat was one of three tracked by the U.S. Coast Guard since July 28, according to a federal affidavit by Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Patrick Jones.
The Coast Guard stopped two of them the next day and seized fuel from one and 12,000 pounds of pot from the other. They continued tracking the third, suspecting it might land in Año Nuevo State Park in Pescadero.
Homeland Security agents kept the area around the beach under surveillance and on the night of Aug. 1, they saw a crew arrive in a U-Haul and light off three bottle rockets near the shoreline, apparently signaling the boat at sea.
They then drove the U-Haul back to the beach at about 10:15 p.m. but when they returned, they found the way out blocked by an unmarked law enforcement vehicle, according to Jones.
The driver crashed the U-Haul through a fence to get out and sped away with numerous law enforcement vehicles pursuing him. He accelerated the U-Haul to 100 mph trying to get away, but was stopped by a blockade in the Scott Creek area of Santa Cruz County.
Luis Espinoza Mendoza, 28, was identified as the driver of the van and was arrested. Authorities found the van loaded with bales of marijuana.
The agents searched the beach area and arrested Luis Farid Gonzalez, 20, Mario Gonzalez, 36, Estaban Flores Salazar, 39, Joan Sicairos, 19, and Mark Richard Teixeira, 38.
Mendoza told investigators that he had agreed to help smuggle drugs in exchange for help emigrating illegally to the U.S. from Mexico, Jones said. Salazar said that he worked for the smugglers as a deckhand on the boat in exchange for assistance moving to the U.S.
Teixeira is a San Jose resident who told investigators that he took the job of unloading the boat in exchange for $3,000, according to Jones.
The next morning, a park ranger spotted three men walking on an isolated stretch of state Highway 1. The ranger stopped them and determined that two of them, Juan Valdez Lopez, 50, and Juan Hernandez, 39, were from Mexico and had no valid U.S. identification, according to Jones.
Lopez had been arrested last December for possession for sale of marijuana in San Luis Obispo and investigators believe that Lopez and Hernandez piloted the panga boat from Mexico, Jones said.
They were arrested along with the third man walking along the road, identified as Phin Yo Vorn, 33, who is believed to be one of the men hired to unload the boat.
The Coast Guard discovered the panga boat abandoned about 7 miles off the coast later that day. The speedy open boats are often used by drug smugglers and abandoned or sunk after a delivery has been made, according to Jones.
All nine defendants were charged in state court days later. Gonzalez, Mendoza, Salazar, Sicairos and Teixeira pleaded no contest to the charges on Aug. 13. The remaining defendants pleaded not guilty and their charges were dismissed Wednesday.
If convicted of the federal charges, they each face a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.
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