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INTERNATIONAL CRIME

US convict faces deportation to SA for running sex and drugs ‘crime sanctuary’ hotel

US convict faces deportation to SA for running sex and drugs ‘crime sanctuary’ hotel
Illustrative image: Dollars and cocaine; hands tied up; the Best Choice Inn motel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Images: Unsplash; Freepik; YouTube)

Five years ago, US law enforcement officers shut down the hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, accusing those running it of managing a sordid crime sanctuary. One of those implicated has since pleaded guilty and may land up in South Africa.

The sentencing of a man in the US, who could be deported to South Africa, has exposed details about how an inn was converted into “a sanctuary” for illicit activities including drug dealing.

At the end of March 2024, Kamal Bhula (44), also known as Rocky, was sentenced to nearly five years in jail in the US, after he pleaded guilty in 2023 to “to maintaining a drug-involved premises”.

According to a 27 March statement about his sentencing, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico said Bhula faced “likely deportation to South Africa as a consequence of this conviction”.

This suggests he is from this country.

Daily Maverick has established that businesses were previously registered in Gauteng to an individual sharing the same name and age as Bhula.

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement website states that its operations target individuals who could pose threats to public safety, including “convicted criminal undocumented individuals and gang members, as well as individuals who have otherwise violated our nation’s immigration laws”.

It is not clear if Bhula fits into those categories.

US court documents and statements reveal a vast web of criminality extending to Bhula and at least two of his associates, Pragneshkumar Patel and Jonathan Craft, who also pleaded guilty.

According to a 2022 order from the New Mexico district court, Patel bought the Best Choice Inn via a company of his in September 2017 and ran operations there until March 2018.

Bhula then took over.

 Women and drug debts

“Mr. Bhula ran the Best Choice Inn until agents arrested him in June 2019,” the court papers said.

However, the venue had not simply been operated as a hotel.

According to the 2022 court order, the men had run “a sex and drug trafficking enterprise at a Best Choice Inn … from September 2017 to June 2019 under the pretence of being legitimate owners, managers and employees”.

The papers stated: “[They] allegedly recruited unstable women into prostitution by supplying them with narcotics or otherwise exploiting their weaknesses and generated drug debts which the women had to repay by engaging in prostitution.”

Court papers from February last year relating to evidence in the case also referenced allegations that women were trafficked by way of the Best Choice Inn.

Human trafficking

Those papers said the US government had text messages which suggested women had been trafficked.

One such text message, between someone referred to as Jane Doe 1 and an accused in the matter, stated that Jane Doe 1 “doesn’t want to end up like them, basically homeless”.

The message referred to “other trafficked women.”

The court papers also alleged that Patel had told women that “selling their bodies … will … bring in the money”.

As for Bhula, the 27 March 2024 US Attorney’s Office statement said he had profited from a kickback scheme.

Crime sanctuary

The scheme had involved “drug traffickers and users” having to pay a “visitor fee” if they “wanted to use the motel as a sanctuary for illegal activity”.

“As the manager, Bhula employed workers and rented rooms to individuals who he knew were using and selling controlled substances at the hotel,” the statement said.

“The Best Choice Inn was described as a ‘one-stop shop’ in southeast Albuquerque for criminal activity of all sorts. 

“Consequently, between January 2018 and December 2018, there were approximately 195 calls for service to the Best Choice Inn.”

Bhula’s co-accused, Patel and Craft, were sentenced to jail time in February this year.

Narcotics sold from room

Patel was set to spend two-and-a-half years behind bars and had to pay fines totalling $40,000 and restitution of $9,000.

He was also ordered to forfeit the Best Choice Inn.

Craft was handed a nearly six-year prison term.

According to a February 2024 US Drug Enforcement Administration statement about their sentencing, Craft had lived and worked at the Best Choice Inn and had claimed to be in charge when Bhula was away.

“Craft sold drugs from his room, allowed others to do the same and permitted individuals to use drugs on the premises,” that statement said.

“As a manager, Craft knew that many of the people for whom a visitor fee was imposed specifically frequented the business to engage in illegal activity, including selling and using drugs.”

In February 2024, US Attorney Alexander Uballez also had strong words for Patel and said that drug traffickers targeted vulnerable individuals.

“When this greedy out-of-state hotel owner capitalised on the desperation of the most marginalised New Mexicans to line his own pockets, he lost his hotel, tens of thousands of dollars, and his freedom,” Uballez said.

‘It is not safe’

US law enforcement officers shut down the Best Choice Inn when Bhula was arrested in June 2019.

At the time, an article from the Albuquerque news outfit KOAT reported that more than 50 law enforcement officers had raided the premises “after numerous reports of recent overdose deaths, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency”.

A review of the Best Choice Inn from March 2019, posted on the Tripadvisor website, said: “This hotel is in a bad area and it is not safe! The rooms were filthy and illegal activity was happening. 

“The police are heavily in the area. We did not feel safe leave the car in the parking lot without fear of it being stolen. We check out within 5 minutes of getting there [sic].”DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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