Mexicans Juan Jose Avila and Andres Vargas Flores in court as their sentence is read, July 15, 2020 in Les Cayes, Haiti. (Jean H
Mexicans Juan Jose Avila and Andres Vargas Flores in court as their sentence is read, July 15, 2020 in Les Cayes, Haiti. (Jean Hernst Eliscar / VOA)

A Haitian judge sentenced Mexican nationals Juan Jose Avila, 38, and Andres Vargas Flores, 43, to five years in prison Wednesday after convicting them of drug trafficking. The men were also fined 2 million Haitian gourdes each.

Avila and Vargas Flores were arrested in November 2019 in Haiti’s southern seaport city of Les Cayes, hours after crash-landing in the rural town of Saint Jean du Sud, about 24 kilometers, or a 45-minute drive, away. The men told local residents who surrounded the plane that they had experienced engine trouble while flying over the region. Inside the plane, local police found weapons, gallons of gasoline and thousands of U.S. dollars.

"Both men, pilots by profession, are hereby found guilty of drug trafficking," pronounced Judge Robert Jourdain, who presided over the case. He said the Haitian government would confiscate their plane.

The men were handcuffed, clean shaven, wearing polo shirts and black face masks as they stood in court to hear the verdict.

The backstory

In an interview with VOA Creole shortly after the arrest, the chief prosecutor for Les Cayes, Ronald Richmond, said the men told him they had flown to Haiti from Belize and were headed to Venezuela, where they were instructed to pick up 900 kilos of cocaine that they would then transport to Guatemala.

Richmond told VOA the men were working for a Mexican drug trafficker named "Lubo." They had loaded the plane with gallons of gasoline to avoid having to land to refuel.

The prosecutor said the men told him they had been paid $10,000 in cash for expenses. Upon returning to Mexico, they were to receive an additional $150,000 U.S. dollars each.

How they got caught

Richmond said the men had used their expense money to pay off some residents who helped them flee the crash scene and brought them to a house in Les Cayes where the pilots could wait for driver who would help them leave the country.

Instead, law enforcement was tipped off about their whereabouts and arrived at the house and arrested them just as they were getting ready to leave. The prosecutor declined to identify the informant, saying only the person was a member of their “intelligence network.”

Reaction to verdict

After the verdict was read, Richmond told VOA he is not thrilled with the outcome.

"I'm not satisfied," he said, "because these men came from Mexico. They were picking up 900 kilos of cocaine in Venezuela that they were transporting to Guatemala.

“So, five years’ prison time is minor; they should have been sentenced to at least 15 years in prison," he said.

Asked if he intends to appeal the sentence, the prosecutor said he did not.

It is unclear where the men will serve their sentences. Human rights activists have expressed concern about the current situation in Haiti's overcrowded prisons at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is spreading nationwide.

The latest figures released by Haiti's ministry of public health indicate a total of 6,948 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 145 deaths.

Matiado Vilme contributed to this story.

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