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Thousands of guns, grenades mailed to South America are seized in crackdown on Florida ring

California Attorney General Kamala Harris announces on June 16, 2011, a statewide sweep that collected more than 1,200 firearms were seized from individuals legally barred from possessing them. (Office of the Attorney General of California/Released)

Thousands of assault-style weapons and explosives shipped through the mail from South Florida to South America were seized this week in a law enforcement crackdown on arms traffickers who rake in millions on the black market while supplying criminal gangs, federal authorities said Friday.

A portion of the 5,300 firearms and components was confiscated in South Florida in the arrests of two high-level smugglers accused of illegally exporting weapons parts in packages that are reassembled in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, a notorious hub known as the Tri-Border Area, according to officials with Homeland Security Investigations in Miami.

The vast majority of the weapons smuggled out of South Florida — including more than 2,500 AR-15 rifles, handguns and grenades, along with some military-grade aircraft and tank weaponry — were confiscated in Argentina in that country’s largest illegal firearms haul ever, U.S. officials said during a news conference at HSI’s office in Doral. Argentine authorities arrested more than 20 suspects and seized about $100,000 in cash.

“With this partnership, we prevented the illicit sale and proliferation of a significant cache of weapons by keeping them out of the hands of criminals and transnational criminal organizations operating in Argentina and Brazil,” said Matthew T. Albence, deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Anthony Salisbury, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, credited the dismantling of the weapons network to cooperation among law enforcement agencies in the United States, Argentina and Brazil.

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“The international law enforcement community is sending a strong message that there is nowhere in the world that we won’t pursue criminal activity together,” said Salisbury, who described South Florida as a “hub for weapons trafficking to South America.”

About 50 law enforcement operations were carried out on Wednesday by South Florida and South American authorities, who have been collaborating in the weapons-smuggling crackdown, dubbed Operation Patagonia Express. It was launched a year ago when a mislabeled package of weapons parts was intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a massive postal-sorting facility in Doral, officials said. HSI agents then tipped off Argentine officials and collaborated with them in an undercover operation that led to massive weapon seizures and arrests not only this week but also last fall in Argentina.

The high-powered weapons, along with more than 160 explosives and 15 silencers, were intended for a network of arms traffickers in Argentina who distribute them to criminal gangs in that country, Brazil and Paraguay. According to published reports in South America, the semiautomatic rifle parts cost about $1,500 but when assembled sell for as much as $12,000 in Paraguay and $20,000 in Brazil.

ICE’s deputy director, Albence, said after Friday’s news conference that the South American arms traffickers “will sell them to the highest bidder.”

The weapons were originally purchased in Florida by straw buyers at licensed firearm shops or at gun shows with lax criminal background checks — and then exported in violation of International Traffic and Arms Regulations without a State Department license. Two former Broward County residents, John James Peterson, 60, and Brunella Zuppone, 67, were arrested this week and charged with conspiring to violate U.S. weapons export laws and are scheduled to be arraigned July 17.

The sheer number of weapons being smuggled out of Florida into South America’s Tri-Border Area highlights the ease of buying firearms in the Sunshine State and shipping them illegally through the U.S. Postal Service. It also highlights the weak border and customs controls on the receiving end in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

Albence said the pipeline of weapons flowing between South Florida and South America was not a result of U.S. gun laws, but more a function of the unlawful markets of drugs, firearms and other contraband trafficked by criminals with a presence in both regions. “A lot of them are criminals who have ties here,” Albence said. “At the end of the day, it’s all for the money.”

In November, Argentine officials seized more than 600 firearms, including hundreds of AR-15 rifles, in Buenos Aires and other areas after U.S. authorities alerted them to suspicious packages being shipped from Miami to Argentina. A number of arrests were made, including members of Argentina’s postal services who were accused of collaborating with criminal groups, according to InSight Crime.

Last July, a Brazilian firearms dealer living in Florida who sold weapons to criminals in his native country was sentenced to about 13 years in prison. Frederick Barbieri pleaded guilty to smuggling more than 1,000 firearms, including assault-style rifles hidden in water heaters shipped from Miami to Rio de Janeiro.

Barbieri, who was arrested with a cache of weapons including AK-47s at his Florida home, admitted in Miami federal court that he exported the assault-style rifles with obliterated serial numbers to Brazil. There, the guns were sold on the black market to street gangs and drug traffickers in the favelas.

The latest U.S.-led operation in South America’s Tri-Border Area involved Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and national police in Argentina and Brazil. Two officials from those countries attended Friday’s news conference.

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© 2019 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.