On New Year’s Day, Elio Diaz-Hernandez was piloting a 30-foot Wellcraft boat off Key Largo with a haul of almost 40 pounds of cocaine, federal agents say.
He was running the boat with no navigation lights in hopes Coast Guard and Customs patrols wouldn’t notice him in the evening darkness.
But, around 7 p.m., the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Charles Sexton spotted the vessel and launched a small patrol boat to intercept it. According to a criminal complaint from Coast Guard Investigative Services, Diaz-Hernandez, 55, tossed a large bag overboard and made several maneuvers to get away from the patrol boat.
He eventually stopped, and the Coast Guard crew retrieved the bag, which contained 15 individually wrapped packages that turned out to be 36 pounds of cocaine, according to the complaint.
Diaz-Hernandez faces a charge of possession with intent to sell 5 or more kilograms of cocaine. His detention hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at the Key West federal courthouse.
Diaz-Hernandez has two previous smuggling convictions, but in those cases, he was hauling people, not drugs.
On March 9, 2012, a U.S. Customs Air and Marine Operations patrol boat crew stopped a 30-foot Wellcraft Scarab about 11 nautical miles southeast of Key Largo that was carrying seven Chinese nationals. Diaz-Hernandez and another man, Jose Gutierrez, 54, were operating the vessel, according to federal court documents.
A couple of hours earlier, another boat met up with the Scarab off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas and transferred the Chinese nationals.
After the Customs boat stopped the Scarab, Gutierrez, who owns the vessel, told agents he and Diaz-Hernandez left a Key Biscayne marina earlier that night to fish off Elliot Key.
He said his GPS stopped working on the way out. The men saw a flare, and a boat approached them, and the two men on that vessel said they rescued the Chinese people from a sinking boat, Gutierrez told agents. He said the men asked him and Diaz-Hernandez to take the people to safety in the United States.
However, one of the women on the boat told agents a different story. She said her family paid smugglers $50,000 to bring her to the United States.
She and the six other Chinese nationals arrived in the Bahamas five days earlier. On March 9, 2012, a boat left Bimini and took her and the others to a Wellcraft Scarab “piloted by Gutierrez and Diaz-Hernandez,” a Department of Homeland Security Investigations agent wrote in his arrest report.
A judge sentenced Diaz-Hernandez to two years in prison for that case, and Gutierrez to 18 months, along with two years of probation.
At the time, Diaz-Hernandez had recently come off a five-year sentence for his role in smuggling 31 people into the States from Cuba, said Sarah Schall, public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
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