US prosecutors have indicted five citizens of Venezuela in connection with a case involving a Miami arms trafficking network that illustrates the Florida city's importance for gun runners sending US weapons abroad.
Venezuelans Ender Enrique Soto Hernández, Ender Alberto Soto Hernández, Luis Antonio Urdaneta Pozo, Wilmer Onelis Hinestroza Pereira and Alcibiades de Jesús Palmar Narváez have been charged with federal arms trafficking violations in the Southern District of Florida, according to a February 16 indictment.
The five men stand accused of involvement in a scheme to illegally export weapons and ammunition to Venezuela since 2013.
Their case intersects with charges previously brought against three other Venezuelan citizens. José Gutiérrez Morales, Alfredo Montilla Hernández and Abrahán José Aguilar Sánchez have all pleaded guilty in recent weeks to charges that they conspired to illegally ship arms from Miami to Venezuela.
According to reports from El Nuevo Herald, Aguilar Sánchez's lawyer told the court that his client was going to cooperate with authorities after pleading guilty. It is likely that the information he provided helped lead to the new indictment of the five Venezuelans.
Investigators allege that the five newly indicted defendants bought or stole at least 13 firearms, five rifles and 54 pounds of ammunition in Florida and carried them in their luggage or shipped them through parcel services from Miami to Maracaibo, Venezuela.
An investigation of the trafficking ring began in April 2016 when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers intercepted a package at Miami International Airport sent from Maracaibo by a man named Ender Soto. Upon inspection, the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) branch of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency found that the shipment contained 25 empty car battery boxes. The agency then tracked the package to Gutiérrez Morales and Montilla Hernández, according to the criminal complaint filed against the two men.
In May, airport officials selected Aguilar Sánchez, who was arriving to Miami on a flight from Maracaibo, for questioning. Aguilar Sánchez's phone was reviewed during inspection and Soto's telephone number was found, linking him to the investigation against Gutiérrez Morales and Montilla Hernández, according to a separate criminal complaint.
Then in June, according to court records, Aguilar Sánchez went to the Miami airport to pick up Gutiérrez Morales, who had flown from Maracaibo to Miami. Gutiérrez Morales listed Aguilar Sánchez's residence as where he was staying while in the United States, the complaint stated.
Shortly thereafter, HSI began conducting surveillance on Gutiérrez Morales and Montilla Hernández, and at the property listed as the destination of the original April package containing the empty car batteries.
Later in June, Gutiérrez Morales was observed delivering two pallets containing two assault rifles and nearly 15,000 rounds of ammunition hidden inside electrical generators to Conavenca Freight Forwarders in Miami, according to the criminal complaint.
The surveillance operation culminated months later in October when an HSI officer intercepted a white pickup truck at the Conavenca shipping company. Gutiérrez Morales and Montilla Hernández were observed earlier that day dropping handguns off at the property being surveilled prior to the truck leaving to Conavenca without them.
Upon inspection, officers found the same empty car battery boxes from the April package in the truck's bed. The boxes were packed with eight handguns, approximately 23,500 rounds of ammunition and 19 high capacity magazines, according to court records. Gutiérrez Morales and Montilla Hernández were pulled over later that same day and arrested. In the car, officers found two handguns, five AR-15 assault rifles that had been taken apart, and more than 1,700 rounds of ammunition.
According to court documents, the US Attorney's Office filed charges against Gutiérrez Morales and Montilla Hernández on December 1, 2016 for attempting to illegally export weapons and ammunitions to Venezuela.
That same day, Aguilar Sánchez was intercepted at the Miami airport attempting to board a plane to Venezuela. Court records explain that after further interrogation, HSI officers found photographs on Aguilar Sánchez's cellphone of electrical generators that matched the description of those used in the June shipment. He was also subsequently charged with arms trafficking violations.
All three men originally pleaded innocent before entering guilty pleas. The US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida did not immediately respond to a request for comment by InSight Crime regarding the whereabouts of the five newly-indicted defendants.
InSight Crime Analysis
The expanding case against the trafficking ring highlights how a variety of local conditions have contributed to Miami's status as a major hub in the international illegal arms trade.
One key attraction Miami holds for gun runners is the large amount of legitimate shipping commerce that transits the city's port, which is one of the busiest in the United States. The large volume of goods makes it relatively easy for smugglers to hide contraband among legitimate merchandise without detection. This is particularly true for shipments heading to Latin American countries. According to a recent report (pdf), Miami acts as a leading entry point into Central and South America, handling "half of the eight million tons of cargo coming from or going to Latin America each year."
Another factor that makes Miami an attractive hub for arms trafficking is the availability of high-quality weapons in the city, aided in part by lax local regulations on gun sales. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence's 2016 Gun Law State Scorecard, Florida received an "F" grade for its gun laws. The report also noted that the state "did not enact any significant firearms-related laws in 2016."
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The recent case in Miami also illustrates the high demand for firearms in Venezuela. According to research from Gun Policy, an international firearms observatory, there are estimated to be as many as 2.7 million illicit firearms in Venezuela. Only Brazil -- a global hub for firearms production -- has a higher estimated number of illicit firearms in South America.
The demand for guns in Venezuela is likely related to the country's ongoing economic and political turmoil, which has fueled high levels of violence in recent years. Although accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, Venezuela's homicide rate last year of approximately 59 per 100,000 citizens ranks it as Latin America's second deadliest country behind El Salvador.
It remains unclear to whom and for what purpose the guns were being trafficked from Miami to Venezuela in the above-mentioned case. But it is not unlikely that they may have been destined for use in criminal activities. As the case unfolds, it is possible that other defendants will reveal further details that will enhance authorities' understanding of the dynamics of illicit arms flows from Florida to Venezuela.