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Disbarred Florida lawyer caught after 26 years on run in drug case

By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) - A disbarred Florida lawyer, on the run for 26 years after failing to show up for his prison term for drug money laundering, was behind bars in Miami on Thursday after being caught in Mexico, federal authorities said.

Leading police on a foot chase following a traffic stop, Manuel Lopez-Castro, now 61, was taken into custody on Tuesday in Cancun, Mexico, where he had been hiding out for years with family, said Senior Inspector Barry Golden of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Gone was the mustache and long hair that he sported in 1986 when he skipped out on a promise, secured with a $250,000 bond, to begin serving a 27-year sentence for marijuana smuggling, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, Golden said.

Triggering an international fugitive search, Lopez-Castro was believed to have fled to Spain, then possibly to Costa Rica, Argentina, Venezuela, and Panama before settling in Mexico.

Now clean cut, with short hair and some wrinkles, Lopez-Castro was tracked to a condominium in Cancun recently by U.S. Marshals and the Mexican National Police. On Tuesday, authorities staged the traffic stop in Cancun to get a closer look and arrest the man they believed to be Lopez-Castro, Golden said.

He bolted from the car, which he was driving with family members, but was quickly caught. He argued that he was a Mexican citizen, but investigators learned that he obtained a fraudulent Mexican birth certificate approximately ten years earlier and was, in fact, Lopez-Castro, Golden said.

"This was just straight up good police work," Golden said.

Lopez-Castro's attorney, William Tunkey of Miami, declined to comment on the case.

An international cold case, the incident was reopened by U.S. Marshals whose the foreign field office in Mexico unearthed new information in 2012 on Lopez-Castro's whereabouts.

The Cuban-born attorney, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1977 and worked for the Sunshine State Bank in Miami, was convicted of helping a marijuana syndicate launder large sums of currency through Florida banks, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Marshals.

In addition to the $250,000 bond he forfeited in 1986 by fleeing, his Miami home was seized by federal authorities and he was disbarred in 1987 by the Florida Supreme Court, the release said.

Now, along with the 27-year sentence in the drug case, Lopez-Castro faces a bond jumping charge, Golden said.

Lopez-Castro made his initial court appearance on that charge in U.S. District Court in Miami on Thursday and was sent without bail to the Federal Detention Center in Miami, according to a court spokeswoman. He is due back in court on February 25.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Kenneth Barry)

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