RALEIGH, N.C. -- A former Belize cabinet member was sentenced to seven years in prison and fined $50,000 for scheming to smuggle cocaine and marijuana from the tiny Central American nation.
Elijio Briceno, 47, was sentenced Monday on charges of plotting to smuggle some 4,500 pounds of 'Belize Breeze' marijuana and about 50 kilos of cocaine into the United States. Drug Enforcement agents said the potent, seedless marijuana would have sold for nearly $2 million dollars.
Prosecutor Samuel Currin said the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Earl Britt was 'substantial.' Briceno was taken into custody by U.S. Marshals and Currin said early parole was not likely.
'Coupled with the fine, it should send a strong message to corrupt Latin American officials involved in the smuggling of drugs,' Currin said.
Briceno said he was 'sorry for breaking the laws of the United States' and asked the judge before sentencing to be deported to Belize.
'I will have to live with this the rest of my life. I have brought shame to my family, my friends and my country,' said Briceno, with one of his eight children looking on.
Defense lawyers had argued that Briceno's arrest was politically motivated.
'Targeting a member of a foreign government for arrest has a great potential for abuse,' said defense attorney Reber Boult, who plans an immediate appeal.
'This case is indicative of the problems that the United States has in dealing with poor developing nations. It's driving the people of Belize away from the United States,' said Boult, who gave Britt a petition signed by 3,100 Belizeans calling for Briceno's freedom.
But Britt dismissed contentions that the case was a 'political plot or vendetta against Briceno personally' or the former government in Belize. He agreed only to let Briceno serve his time at low-security prison camps at Allenwood, Pa., or Danbury, Conn.
Known as British Honduras until 1981, Belize is a tiny, peaceful democracy squeezed between Mexico, Guatamala and the Caribbean Sea.
Drug Enforcement Agency authorities said Belize is the fourth-largest supplier of marijuana to the United States behind Colombia, Jamaica and Mexico. The estimated $150 million marijuana business dwarfs the nation's $90 million legal exports, agents said.
The DEA had said Briceno offered protection and the use of airstrips to drug smugglers and grew marijuana on his property while serving as the Minister of Energy and Communications and had voted in 1983 against a drug erradication program.