Guyanese woman charged in federal sting with smuggling migrants from Bahamas to Miami

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(Miami Herald) In an unusual sting operation, a woman from Guyana has been arrested by federal authorities on charges of illegally bringing a boatload of undocumented foreigners from the Bahamas to Miami.

Marcia Sunita Pestano, 44, was granted a $250,000 bond Friday as an alternative to detention before trial in Miami federal court. Her defense attorney, Marshall Dore Louis, declined to comment about the case. Her arraignment is set for May 7.

Pestano was arrested earlier this week after Homeland Security investigators coordinated an undercover operation targeting the Guyanese woman, who was suspected of directing “alien-smuggling ventures from various third countries through the Bahamas to the United States,” according to a criminal complaint.

Deploying such a sting in a human-smuggling investigation is uncommon.

On April 14, Pestano met with an undercover agent in the Bahamas to smuggle seven undocumented migrants from Freeport to Miami, the complaint says. She paid $24,900 in U.S. currency and an additional $6,100 in Bahamian dollars to the agent for the illegal trip.

The following day, Pestano arranged for the seven migrants to travel by boat to Miami — although she was unaware that the vessel was “surreptitiously operated” by Homeland Security investigators, the complaint says.

When the boat arrived in Miami, it was stopped by federal authorities. However, there were 12 undocumented migrants on board — including the seven whose passage was arranged by Pestano. It was unclear from the complaint why there were 12 passengers on board.

At the Coast Guard Station in Miami Beach, U.S. Border Patrol agents interviewed the dozen people from Caribbean and Latin American countries. They were then transported to the Border Patrol Station in Dania Beach.

Between April 16 and April 22, Pestano contacted another undercover agent who was posing as a corrupt government official. “She sought assistance [from the agent] to get the [seven undocumented aliens] out of immigration detention so that she would not lose the money she was supposed to earn for arranging for them to be smuggled to the United States,” according to the complaint.

Pestano, who went by the name “Julie,” also asked the undercover agent to assist with her own travel to Miami so she could obtain the release of the people from the vessel.

On Monday of this week, the agent arranged for Pestano to travel from Nassau to Miami and set up a meeting between her and two Indian nationals at a hotel in Doral, “for what they believed would be an exchange” of money for their release, the complaint says.

Homeland Security investigators then detained Pestano and the other two Indian nationals, who were not identified. After her arrest, investigators found she possessed $13,000 in U.S. money and additional $26,000 in Bahamian and Guyanese currency, the complaint says. The Indian nationals had about $33,950 on them.

Pestano was charged with conspiring to encourage and induce aliens to enter the United States in violation of federal law.

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