San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Drug trafficking case winds down

Three suspected members of a drug trafficking ring accused of orchestrating a flight that crashed into Costa Rica’s Rio Torres in October 2010, leaving one of the two pilots dead and 177 kilograms of cocaine sitting in a riverbed, are now awaiting their verdicts from a criminal court hearing on the case.

The Guatemalan pilot of the doomed drug flight, Otto Monzón, was apprehended at the scene and has undergone a long recovery in San José’s Hospital Mexico. The crash left him with a fractured face, blindness in one eye, limited vision in the other, and an amputated leg due to a post-surgery infection.

Two other men on trial, Mexican citizens Rubén Martínez, the registered owner of the plane, and Elvis Mendoza, were apprehended the same day of the crash, Oct. 10, 2010, near Costa Rica’s northern border at Peñas Blancas, while allegedly trying to cross illegally into Nicaragua. They were stopped by a border agent who said they appeared suspicious, carrying five cellular phones and a substantial amount of cash near an unauthorized crossing point. The border agent alleged in his testimony that Mendoza attempted to bribe him to let them go.

Prosecuting attorney Glenn Calvo, in his closing statements this week, characterized the trio of suspects, Monzón, Martínez and Mendoza, as the transporter, mastermind and logistics coordinator of the operation, respectively. Calvo said the men operated out of Costa Rica, transporting drugs to Guatemala in modified planes with secret compartments and specialized equipment. The planes allegedly landed and took off from Tobías Bolaños International Airport in Pavas, a western district of San José.

Calvo asked Monday that the panel of three judges hand down harsh sentences for all three men. If they are found guilty and Calvo’s guidelines followed, Monzón could serve 12 years, Martínez 20, and Mendoza 17. The judges will make a decision in the coming week.

Defense attorneys and Martínez accused the prosecution of painting broad strokes and using circumstantial evidence to link all three to an organized drug conspiracy. Defense attorney Segismundo Araya, representing Monzón, said his client wasn’t aware of the cocaine that was stashed in the plane’s wing. The weight of the cocaine in the wing apparently caused it to plummet to the earth shortly after taking off.

Araya claimed Monzón was contracted by Martínez to fly from Guatemala and then return, but was tricked into returning with the cargo of cocaine. He said Monzón wouldn’t have identified the stashed drugs in a standard pre-flight look-over. He added that no pilot with more than 30 years of flying experience – which Monzón possesses – would overload a plane in the manner that caused the plane to crash.

In the courtroom on Tuesday, as Monzón sat in a wheelchair, head hung, with his pant leg rolled above medical bandages on his amputated leg, frequently dabbing his eyes with a white handkerchief, Araya delicately attempted to place the blame on the other two suspects.

“This man was tricked,” Araya said. “He is one more victim of drug trafficking.”

Martínez presented himself to the court as an upstanding businessman operating in Costa Rica. He said he was in the country looking for further business opportunities, such as opening a Mexican restaurant in Playas del Coco. He said he and Mendoza were looking for a bite to eat and a coffee while waiting to cross the border when they were apprehended.

Law enforcement had issued an alert for the two men the day of the crash, and prosecutors claimed that instead of taking their scheduled departure flight from Juan Santamaría International Airport outside of San José, the two men attempted to flee to Nicaragua when they realized the plane had crashed.

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