Thousands of guns, grenades mailed to South America are seized in crackdown
By JAY WEAVER | Miami Herald | Published: June 28, 2019
MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — 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.
Some of the firearms were confiscated in South Florida in the arrests of 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 — 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.
About 50 law enforcement operations were carried out on Wednesday in Florida, Argentina and Brazil by 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. authorities, officials said.
The high-powered weapons and explosives were intended for a network of arms traffickers in Argentina who distribute them to criminal gangs in neighboring Brazil and Paraguay. According to published reports in South America, the semi-automatic rifle parts cost about $1,500 but when assembled sell for as much as $12,000 in Paraguay and $20,000 in Brazil.
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.
Details of the South Florida-South American weapons pipeline were announced at a news conference Friday morning by Matthew Albence, deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Anthony Salisbury, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in Miami.
“We just took thousands and thousands of weapons off the street, cutting the flow of firearms to dangerous criminal gangs and drug traffickers in the favelas of Brazil,” Salisbury said, referring to the violent urban slums in that country.
But 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.
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.
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