National Post (National Edition)




AToronto trucker accused of smuggling for Mexican drug baron Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman has had a change of heart as his U.S. trial date neared, pleading guilty to running cocaine between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

Mykhaylo Koretskyy, 46, alias “Russian Mike,” was accused by U.S. authoritie­s of using his transport company as a front to move huge amounts of cocaine, hiding the drugs inside commercial trucks that ran between L.A., Buffalo and cities in Canada.

Koretskyy had been set to face trial in January, having pleaded not guilty to charges detailed in an indictment by the Southern District of New York. The indictment charged Koretskyy; former Toronto real estate agent Stephen Tello; El Chapo; and El Chapo's right-hand man, Alex Cifuentes-Villa, with importing “five kilograms or more” of cocaine into the U.S. in a conspiracy running from October 2008 to January 2014.

Koretskyy was arrested in Curaçao, in the Caribbean, in January 2018. Agents there, alerted by a Red Notice from the global police body Interpol, hauled him into custody when he got off an Air Canada flight from Toronto.

Later extradited to the U.S., since June 2019 he has been held at Manhattan's Metropolit­an Correction Center, the same prison that housed El Chapo throughout his 2019 trial in Brooklyn, which saw the Sinaloa Cartel boss sentenced to life plus 30 years. Considered a harsh environmen­t under normal circumstan­ces, the prison is now sealed to visitors in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On a Dec. 11 audio conference call at which Koretskyy entered his new plea, transcript­s of which have been obtained by the National Post, prosecutor Stephanie Lake indicated that the government's evidence, should the case have gone to trial, was strong.

It includes “consensual recordings of the defendant and his co-conspirato­rs discussing narcotics traffickin­g activities,” Lake said, as well as Title III intercepts, which are intercepts that require judicial approval to record things such as conversati­ons, phone calls and other electronic communicat­ions.

Lake said prosecutor­s also had “law enforcemen­t testimony regarding surveillan­ce of the defendant and his co-conspirato­rs,” and testimony from witnesses who had decided to tell authoritie­s about Koretskyy's role.

On the plea hearing call, Koretskyy said he was born in Ukraine, where he had “graduated from high school and also college,” but holds Canadian citizenshi­p. He said he had previously worked at “an auto transporta­tion enterprise.” A Russian interprete­r was on the call, but Koretskyy indicated he didn't need the service, except to make absolutely sure he got everything right.

When asked by the judge what he did that makes him guilty, Koretskyy said: “In 2013, I agreed with others to import a large amount of cocaine from Mexico to Canada, through the United States.” He said that on Jan. 3, 2018, he had gone to Curaçao for a vacation with his family and was detained there, spending 17 months in jail before being extradited to the U.S.

In a separate letter to the court, Koretskyy said that although he had a right to appear before a judge in court with his lawyer present, he agreed that as a result of COVID-19 restrictio­ns in place at federal court, he would waive this entitlemen­t.

“I do not wish to wait until the end of this emergency to be sentenced,” the letter reads.

He will now be sentenced remotely in March. He faces a maximum of life in prison and a mandatory minimum of 10 years, with a maximum fine of $10 million.

Judge Paul A. Crotty told Koretskyy that sentencing guidelines for his offence fall between 262 and 327 months in prison, or 21 to 27 years. Judge Crotty reminded him, though, that the final sentence remains at the court's discretion. Koretskyy's plea change will likely see him receive more lenient treatment than he would have faced if found guilty by a jury.

Though by then four years old, Koretskyy's U.S. indictment was only unsealed after he was arrested in Curaçao. However, court documents obtained by the National Post show that the RCMP had Koretskyy in its sights for years. A charge sheet from a 2015 RCMP investigat­ion, code-named Owatcher, showed he was suspected in an alleged plot with the real estate agent Tello, El Chapo, and others to move cocaine by coal boat from Colombia to Canada in 2013.

Koretskyy was never charged in Canada and RCMP would not explain why he was free in Toronto for a number of years, despite apparently being wanted in the U.S. RCMP would only tell the Post it was aware of media reports about him, but “does not comment on specific investigat­ive methods, tools and techniques outside of court.”

Koretskyy was initially represente­d by Jeffrey Lichtman, the New York attorney who defended El Chapo. Lichtman has told the Post:

“I don't understand what happened in Canada, for someone who was wanted for extraditio­n to the U.S.”

He called the situation “bizarre.”

Had Koretskyy gone to trial, one of the witnesses against him would likely have been the Colombian Alex Cifuentes-Villa.

Testifying against El Chapo in return for a reduced sentence, Cifuentes-Villa told the court that El Chapo had wanted to kill Tello, who he said was the cartel's main “worker” in Canada, because he suspected Tello of stealing from him. The Sinaloa Cartel contacted the Hells Angels to kill Tello in Canada, he said, but the murder never happened.

Koretskyy's name did not arise at El Chapo's trial. Tello is serving a 15-year sentence in Canada over a separate 2015 RCMP drugs sting codenamed Operation Harrington.

Koretskyy's U.S. indictment reveals little of his relationsh­ip with the cartel. But court documents show that U.S. prosecutor­s believed he held meetings with cartel members in Mexico, taking cash for his services before taking drugs in commercial trucks between L.A., Buffalo and Canada. The documents emerged in the Netherland­s when Koretskyy, trying to block his extraditio­n to the U.S., appealed to courts in that country because Curaçao is a Dutch territory.

In one deal, Koretskyy was alleged to have charged $155,000 for moving two loads of drugs. An unnamed cartel member said Koretskyy had done prior U.S.-Canada shipments and also moved drugs within Canada. Travel records showed Koretskyy travelling from Mazatlán in Mexico to Canada on March 12, 2013. Mazatlán, on Mexico's Pacific coast, was one of the longtime stronghold cities of El Chapo.



 ?? ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILES ?? Mexican Drug kingpin Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman is escorted into a helicopter at Mexico City's airport. Toronto
trucker Mykhaylo Koretskyy has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Guzman to import cocaine into the U.S.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILES Mexican Drug kingpin Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman is escorted into a helicopter at Mexico City's airport. Toronto trucker Mykhaylo Koretskyy has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Guzman to import cocaine into the U.S.

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