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South Texas man found guilty of marijuana trafficking via Intracoastal Waterway

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A Kingsville, Texas, man was found guilty Monday of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson.

This conviction resulted from an investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Kingsville Narcotics Task Force.

Michael "Mickey" Pena, 45, was found guilty by a federal jury for participating in a drug trafficking organization that transported large amounts of marijuana concealed in the hulls of altered shallow-bottom fishing boats. The marijuana was transported via the intracoastal waterway from Port Mansfield to Corpus Christi to circumvent Border Patrol checkpoints in Falfurrias and Serta, Texas. The federal jury returned their verdict in Corpus Christi after deliberating only 30 minutes following the trial that lasted less than a day.

"Drug smugglers seek the path of least resistance," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of HSI Houston. "The great collaborative work of our special agents and law enforcement partners in this case should give pause to trafficking organizations who seek to exploit our coastal waters to move illegal drugs into this country."

Court testimony revealed that in early 2012, drug trafficking organization members deconstructed a 21-foot Dargel Scout fishing boat over 20 days. The hull of the vessel was then loaded with more than 1,100 pounds of marijuana, and the deck of the boat was rebuilt. The boat was then launched in Port Mansfield and co-defendant Rogelio Mendoza drove it north. Marine interdiction agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intercepted the vessel just south of Corpus Christi.

Subsequent investigation by HSI revealed that Pena arrived at marker 37 with an empty boat trailer shortly after the boat was intercepted and had registered the vessel in his name two weeks earlier. Certified state documents showed that the previous owner of both the boat and the empty trailer were members of the drug trafficking organization. Special agents also testified that they had conducted surveillance of organization members scouting boat ramps near marker 37 about six weeks before the seizure and then immediately drove to Pena's Kingsville residence.

Mendoza, 37, and five other members of the conspiracy had previously pleaded guilty before U.S. district judges in Corpus Christi and have been or are awaiting sentencing. Those drug trafficking members include: Alberto Lopez, aka Alberto Lopez-Reyna, 39, Lombardo Zarate, 49, Glen Dial, 56, Luz Ramirez, 25, and Hector Perez-Gonzalez, 39.

Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, who presided over the trial, has set sentencing for April 17, at which time Pena will face a minimum of five and up to 40 years in prison, as well as a possible $5 million fine, and a substantial money judgment. Pena will remain in custody pending sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey D. Preston, Southern District of Texas, prosecuted the case.