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The labels said ‘sporting goods,’ but inside the parcels were assault rifles, grenades

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. Displays of weapons parts are presented during the announcement on June 28, 2019, of the results of an international weapons trafficking operation by the Homeland Security Investigations department and U.S. law enforcement partners in Argentina and Brazil.

PEDRO PORTAL/MIAMI HERALD/TNS

By JAY WEAVER | Miami Herald | Published: July 3, 2019

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — The labels on the cardboard boxes suggested the contents were harmless — auto and bicycle parts, optic scopes, antique revolvers and other merchandise.

Based in Florida, John Peterson and Brunella Zuppone mailed dozens of these shipments through Miami to Argentina without a hitch for a couple of years, according federal authorities.

But last October, two of the couple’s shipments, innocently marked as “second hand sporting goods,” were intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at a massive postal sorting facility in Doral, a criminal affidavit says. The officers discovered identical contents in each of the two shipments bound for Buenos Aires. Inside each box were about 100 weaponry components for making AR-15 assault rifles.

That kicked off a Homeland Security Investigations’ collaboration with Argentine authorities involving a “controlled delivery” of the rifle parts that led to the couple’s arrest last week and the seizure of 5,300 firearms, grenades and other weaponry, mostly in Argentina and some in Florida, federal authorities say. The massive seizure of weapons, which were intended for criminal gangs in Brazil and other parts of South America, was the largest in Argentina’s history.

But even before that sweeping crackdown, the HSI probe into the couple’s shipments intercepted last fall had resulted in the seizure of about 350 firearms, 30,000 rounds of ammunition, one mortar round, one hand grenade, five vehicles and $110,000 in Argentina — along with the arrest of a key Argentine suspect who had been buying the weaponry from Peterson and Zuppone.

The defendants, who are married, are charged with conspiring to export weapons illegally and attempting to export firearms without a license from the State Department. Their arraignment is set for July 17.

“These are serious charges,” Zuppone’s defense attorney, William Barzee, said Tuesday. “We’re going to look at the government’s evidence and go forward from there.”

Peterson’s attorney, Adebunmi Lomax, with the Federal Public Defender’s Office, could not be reached for comment.

According to the criminal affidavit, video surveillance showed that Peterson and Zuppone delivered the two shipments of AR-15 components to a U.S. Post Office in Bradenton on Oct. 8, 2018, three days before the packages were searched at Customs and Border Protection’s mail facility in Doral. Zuppone paid $189.40 in shipping fees to send the boxes to Argentina.

Later that month, the couple shipped two more packages containing “second hand sporting goods” from Bradenton to Argentina, but federal agents intercepted them. They contained about 250 AR-15 assault rifle components, the affidavit says.

Before those shipments, the couple had previously sent 45 packages suspected of containing weapons but listed as carrying auto parts and other merchandise, according to the criminal affidavit filed by federal prosecutor Rick Del Toro. Peterson and Zuppone previously lived in Pompano Beach, where they made their first shipment to Argentina in February 2016.

Homeland Security Investigations agents obtained a search warrant for the couple’s Brandenton home last November and found about 1,500 AR-15/M-4 assault rifle parts and 21 boxes of ammunition. Agents estimated that those parts could be assembled to make 52 functional assault rifles.

During the search, both Peterson and Zuppone waived their Miranda rights before being interviewed by HSI agents. Both “admitted that they shipped from the United States to Argentina without a license hundreds of AR-15 assault rifle parts and that they provided false information including shippers’ names to conceal their involvement in the illegal shipments,” the affidavit says.

The couple also said they were compensated by co-conspirators in the arms ring with wire transfers, credit card payments and money transfers, according to the affidavit.

About eight months after agents searched their Bradenton home and questioned the couple, Peterson and Zuppone were arrested in late June.

Their arrests were tied to Homeland Security’s announcement last week of the largest weapons seizure in Argentina’s history.

About 5,300 firearms and components were seized before they could be assembled and sold to criminal gangs in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, which known as the Tri-Border Area of South America. The seizure included AR-15 rifles, handguns and grenades, along with some military-grade aircraft and tank weaponry. Argentine authorities arrested more than 20 suspects and confiscated about $100,000 in cash.

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.

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. He described South Florida as a “hub for weapons trafficking to South America.”

About 50 law enforcement operations were carried out by South Florida and South American authorities, who have been collaborating in the weapons-smuggling crackdown, dubbed Operation Patagonia Express. The investigation is ongoing, Salisbury said.

©2019 Miami Herald

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