MIAMI – How is this for a dumb-luck criminal tale? The smugglers’ hiding place sprang a leak.

A couple of cardboard boxes of guns – too heavy for the drop ceiling of a West Miami-Dade, Fla., storage unit – crashed onto a toilet, rupturing a water pipe. And blub, blub, it all cascaded Thursday into a federal indictment in an arms-export conspiracy.

In the courtroom of U.S. Judge John J. O’Sullivan, five defendants pleaded not guilty to charges of firearms sales and exports to Venezuela, where, prosecutors say, the weapons were to be sold to Colombian rebel and paramilitary groups. A sixth defendant didn’t appear. That person is a fugitive believed to be hiding in China.

“Talk about what luck does in a puddle full of guns,” said Julie Torres, special agent in charge of the Miami office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In all, federal agents have seized more than 700,000 rounds of ammunition and more than 200 weapons.

“They were essentially preparing to arm an army,” U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez said at a news conference. He cited two Colombian “terrorist” groups that received shipments during the past two years.

Miami-Dade police and federal investigators first heard about the alleged conspiracy on the evening of June 12 from a tip.

Tenants using a garage-bay storage space noticed water leaking into their units from a neighboring space, broke in and found the damaged toilet.

Beside the toilet lay two boxes of weapons – with a rifle resting atop one. They had fallen through the drop ceiling, leaving a gash overhead.

“The boxes in the ceiling appeared to have been placed there in an effort to avoid detection,” ATF agent Ali Berisha wrote in a criminal complaint.

Investigators found 10 more boxes stored in a portable plastic freezer in the storage unit.

In all, investigators confiscated 55 firearms, including 20 automatic guns, 19 AK-47-type rifles and nine handguns from the storage unit.

They also seized more than 206,000 rounds of military-type ammunition, 5 pounds of gunpowder and combat boots.

The lucky break sparked an undercover investigation by the ATF and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. They discovered more weapons caches in warehouses, shipping containers and a Homestead home.

To infiltrate the network, agents set up two undercover informants for a phony arms shipment last month. Working with the informants, two suspects loaded 247 rounds of Wolf 7.62mm ammunition into large freezers and refrigerators in another warehouse.

On July 23, agents said, the two suspects loaded the filled freezers and refrigerators into a 40-foot shipping container – along with other household appliances – and sent it off to the Port of Miami-Dade for shipment to Venezuela.

This led to the arrest of Miami-Dade residents Rafael Samper, 40, and Raul Gomez DeMolina, 69, as well as Venezuelans Edgar Semprun, 53, Antonio Tarrab, 41, and Bilmer Paz, 29. Charges against Miguel Palacio of Hialeah, a business partner of Samper’s, were dropped because agents later concluded that he was not involved.

A sixth defendant, Rodney Sharp, 51, of Homestead, Fla., is a fugitive.

During a conversation taped by an informant, Tarrab said the July shipment was intended for a right-wing paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, according to the arrest complaint.

Tarrab also said the next shipment was intended for a rival leftist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Damian said the arms organization’s motive was profit – not politics. The weapons were sold at auction to the highest bidder in the Venezuelan cities Caracas and Maracaibo.

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Before the monitored July shipment, Semprun was recorded on tape bragging to a government informant that he had moved $4 million worth of weapons in the past and offered to give him a cut of future deals.

One government informant told investigators that the group had been active for two years in the illegal trade to Venezuela. The informant said the group had shipped about 30 40-foot cargo containers containing guns and 400,000 rounds of ammunition in the past two years.

ATF agents said each 1,000-round box of ammunition was bought for $100 in Miami and sold for up to 10 times that sum in Venezuela.

The six defendants are charged with conspiracy and other violations of the Arms Export Control Act and the Gun Control Act of 1968. If convicted, each defendant could be sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.


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