Crime

Couple pleads guilty to mailing weapons from Bradenton to South American gangs

Seized weapons parts are displayed during a June 28, 2019 news conference on an international arms-trafficking operation by Homeland Security Investigations and law enforcement partners in Argentina and Brazil.
Seized weapons parts are displayed during a June 28, 2019 news conference on an international arms-trafficking operation by Homeland Security Investigations and law enforcement partners in Argentina and Brazil. pportal@miamiherald.com

Three Floridians accused of mailing hundreds of weapons parts for assault rifles, handguns and grenades from Bradenton to South American criminal gangs have pleaded guilty to violating U.S. export laws.

A couple formerly from Broward County pleaded guilty to a weapons-export conspiracy charge last week, while a man from Palm Beach County pleaded guilty to the same offense Wednesday in Miami federal court.

The two sets of defendants — couple John James Peterson, 60, and Brunella Zuppone, 67, of Pompano Beach, and Cristian German Barrera, 47, of North Palm Beach— didn’t know each other or collaborate together in Florida. But federal authorities say all three were separately directed to ship weapons-filled packages with labels saying “sporting goods” by an Argentine arms-trafficking merchant.

The three South Florida defendants, who did not have U.S. licenses to export the weapons to South America, face up to five years in prison at sentencing hearings scheduled for November.

Over the past year, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations has worked with South American law enforcement on what’s been dubbed “Operation Patagonia Express” to target a massive weapons pipeline between Florida and Argentina.

While federal agents arrested the three Florida defendants and made dozens of firearm seizures in June, Argentine authorities arrested more than 20 others and confiscated thousands of weapons parts and fully assembled assault rifles, handguns and grenades. The massive seizure of weapons, which were intended for criminal gangs in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, was the largest in Argentina’s history.

According to published reports in South America, the semiautomatic rifle parts cost about $1,500 but when assembled sell for between $12,000 and $20,000 each in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Those countries share a so-called Tri-Border Area, a notorious nexus of contraband smuggling, drug trafficking and money laundering.

On Wednesday, Barrera admitted in federal court that he shipped three parcels of weapons labeled “Bicycle Spare” to the Argentine arms-trafficking organizer identified as Roman Ragusa. The packages were intercepted at a major foreign mail facility in Doral by Customs and Border Protection agents, according to a criminal affidavit filed by prosecutor Rick Del Toro. The parcels contained mostly parts for assembling AR-15 assault-style rifles.

In total, Barrera admitted shipping 19 weapons packages to Argentina between June 2017 and June 2018, and was paid between $500 and $600 a shipment. According to the affidavit, Ragusa asked him to buy some weapons at a firearms store in Florida City, but he refused.

By comparison, Peterson and Zuppone admitted in federal court a week ago that they shipped more than twice as many weapons packages to Argentina between early 2016 and fall 2018 — until they got caught.

Last October, two of the couple’s shipments, innocently marked as “second hand sporting goods,” were intercepted at the 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 triggered Homeland Security Investigations’ collaboration with Argentine authorities involving a “controlled delivery” of the rifle parts that led to the couple’s arrest in June and the sweeping crackdown in Argentina

But even before that turning point, 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 Ragusa, the key Argentine suspect who had allegedly bought the weaponry from Peterson and Zuppone as well as Barrera.

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. 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 Bradenton 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.

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