1st Cir. Affirms Guilty Plea of Figueroa Cartel Member

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 13, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Even though he entered a "straight" guilty plea, and was sentenced to the bottom of the range suggested by the federal Sentencing Guidelines, Carlos Torres-Landrua appealed to challenge the reasonableness of his sentence.

Torres was charged with just two counts of drug trafficking and one count of money laundering, but received 168 months (that's 14 years). He was part of a drug trafficking conspiracy that moved cocaine from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico and then to the U.S. mainland. The First Circuit, however, affirmed his sentence.

The Sweet Life

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time: Smuggle up to 700 kilograms of cocaine per trip, spending three or four days at a luxury resort all the while, being entertained by female strippers, and getting paid tens of thousands of dollars for it.

A good gig if you can get it, but it's highly illegal, as Torres found out. Torres was but one cog in the machine of the "Figueroa cartel," an organization led by Jose Figueroa-Agosto, who also has "porn star" on his resume alongside "Caribbean drug kingpin."

What does one do with all this money -- about $350,000 for at least five of these drug running/luxury vacation trips? You launder it, of course. Torres was paid "exorbitant amounts of money, such as $11,000 and $25,000, to simply wash and repair jet skis in the Dominican Republic." With the going rate for washing jet skis nowhere near that much, clearly, the money was actually from drug sales.

On to Prison

But, as with most drug smugglers, the days of wine and roses came to an end. Two years later, Torres was indicted with several others and pleaded guilty to all the counts in a "straight" guilty plea. This is an unconditional guilty plea in which the defendant pleads guilty without negotiating the charges or the sentence.

It's this sentence that's at issue. Torres asked the district court for a downward departure from the guidelines, arguing that he played only a minor part in the conspiracy. Given his crimes and criminal history, the Sentencing Guidelines formula returned a range of 168-210 months in prison.

Torres claimed that the district court's failure to let him present evidence about his minor role in the conspiracy was a due process violation. The First Circuit rejected that argument, saying that he didn't object to the presentence report, "which had characterized Torres as a boat captain and had not recommended that Torres be granted any reduction for his role in the offense." Even so, the district court considered his argument -- and his lawyer's argument -- and also let him testify to how he felt coerced by the other defendants into smuggling drugs.

On the issue of Torres' minor role -- which he said should have been incorporated into the presentence report -- that argument was waived because he didn't object to the PSR. Ultimately, said the court, Torres' sentence was within the calculated range -- indeed, it was at the bottom of the calculated range -- making it reasonable in this case.

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