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Jury Acquits Man Accused of Trafficking Cocaine Via Fort Lauderdale Airbnb

The jury didn't buy prosecutors' argument that Martinez was involved in drug trafficking.EXPAND
The jury didn't buy prosecutors' argument that Martinez was involved in drug trafficking.
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After he was arrested in Fort Lauderdale at a $4,000-a-night Airbnb rental housing 900 pounds of cocaine, Gregorio Martinez is a free man.

Following a seven-day trial earlier this month in Miami federal court, the 36-year-old was found not guilty of cocaine trafficking. Originally charged with four offenses that each carried a maximum penalty of life in prison, Martinez is now part of the less than 1 percent of federal defendants acquitted in a trial by jury.

"The government accuses people of really awful things that the government is then required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," Martinez's attorney, Matthew E. Ladd, told New Times. "But what the government didn't have was anything explicit to indicate why my client was at the house."

Martinez was arrested July 3, 2019, as part of a larger operation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Dominican national was apprehended when agents from ICE and DHS raided the Fort Lauderdale vacation rental and caught Martinez trying to jump off a 54-foot yacht that had docked at the rental to be unloaded. Multiple bricks of cocaine were found onboard, and all occupants of the boat and home were arrested.

Martinez was accused of conspiring to import a Schedule ll controlled substance into the United States from a place outside the country. But at his trial, the jury didn't buy prosecutors' argument that Martinez was involved in any drug-trafficking activity.

"The government never explained why my client was there," Ladd said. "They suspected it was to unload the boat and drive the drugs north. But they didn't have any evidence of this beyond that he was just present. We argued that that wasn't enough, that there was reasonable doubt as to why he was there, and the jury agreed."

Some defendants associated with the case are corroborating with authorities, and others have been convicted, but Martinez is the only one to be acquitted so far. Reached by phone, he told New Times he's hiding somewhere in the Northeast for fear of deportation or reprisal. Asked to comment on his arrest and acquittal, Martinez was hesitant to speak.

"I don't know what to say. I'm scared of them," Martinez said. He did not elaborate on whether "them" meant his codefendants, their associates, or the authorities and then hung up.

After decades of relative quiet on the drug front, the Caribbean is experiencing a revival in the narcotics trade, according to officials. Last June, $1.1 billion worth of cocaine was intercepted in Pennsylvania — the largest coke bust in U.S. history. Martinez's codefendants appear to be part of a larger network that had reemerged amid the political chaos in Venezuela, according to statements from corroborating witnesses in court documents.

Asked about the recent upsurge in drug traffic through South Florida, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marlene Rodriguez said federal prosecutors take reports of drug smuggling "very seriously." She declined to comment about Martinez’s acquittal.

Interestingly, the cocaine bust in Fort Lauderdale is not the first time a vacation rental has been used to traffic drugs to Florida in recent years. Court documents show that in 2019, 34-year-old Angel Rosario was accused of attempting the same scheme twice by bringing in more than 1,200 kilograms of cocaine from the Dominican Republic to an Airbnb in Miami Shores. The trend of using high-end waterfront rentals seems to suggest a refurbishing of old cartel routes with some 21st-century ingenuity and convenience.

Though the Fort Lauderdale house was rented out by a separate property management company at the time, Airbnb communications manager Charlie Urbancic confirms the cocaine bust was the third known incident since 2018 associated with Airbnb's short-term rentals in the South Florida market.

"We have zero tolerance for the reported behavior and work with law enforcement when these issues are brought to our attention," Urbancic said.

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