Miami Gun Store Owner Charged in Plot to Arm Colombian Rebels
MIAMI (AP) -- A gun store owner whose Web site offers help with "special orders" has been charged with supplying a ring that shipped 40-foot cargo containers stuffed with tons of guns and ammunition to Colombian rebels about 30 times in the last two years.
Joseph Ruiz, owner of Dade County Guns & Ammo, was taken into custody Tuesday in an expanding investigation that already had charged six other people with running an illegal gun pipeline from South Florida with help from corrupt Venezuelan customs officials.
The probe got a quirky start in June when weapons hidden in a storage warehouse ceiling broke through, landed on a toilet and flooded the neighboring units. Prosecutors say the weapons were to be sold both to left-wing Colombian rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups.
"Not only did we target the ring, but we also targeted the suppliers of the weapons," Julie Torres, Miami head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Thursday. "That's where we bring it home."
Federal agents eavesdropped on Ruiz's phone calls with an informant after five arrests were made, and he told the informant he would "deny everything until death," according to court papers.
But the informant already had told investigators that the group used major appliances such as freezers and washing machines to hide guns and about 400,000 rounds of ammunition in each shipment from Miami or Fort Lauderdale to Caracas or Maracaibo, Venezuela. The informant also admitted hiding the weapons in the ceiling.
More than 700,000 rounds of ammunition and more than 200 weapons were seized in a gunrunning scheme driven by profits, not politics, investigators say. But tons more apparently got through.
The storage unit where the first batch of weapons was found was leased by Rafael Samper, who leased other self-storage units nearby. In one of them, agents found a receipt dated in May for a 3 1/2-ton shipment of firearms and parts from Centerfire Systems of Versailles, Ky.
"I really don't know what you're referring to honestly," Centerfire owner Shane Coe told The Associated Press. "I want to find out what they're talking about there."
Bond for Ruiz was set at $100,000 Thursday. The Web site for his store near a major Miami highway interchange said Dade County Gun & Ammo "has been one of South Florida's most complete gun dealers for over 12 years," and special orders account for 20 percent of its business.
"Mr. Ruiz is a man who lived a very law-abiding and honorable life, and people of ill repute have brought him through deception, for lack of a better word, into this problem," said Alexander Kapetanakis, Ruiz's attorney. Ruiz is "unapologetic for the business that he's running."
Others charged are: Samper and Raul Gomez DeMolina, both residents of the Miami area, and Venezuelans Edgar Semprun, Antonio Tarrab and Bilmer Paz. All five have pleaded innocent. Co-defendant Rodney Sharp of Homestead is a fugitive.
Agents saw Gomez leave a meeting with Semprun at a fast-food restaurant to talk to Ruiz in the parking lot. The informant also said Ruiz and Tarrab helped unload ammunition from Ruiz's vehicle in the alley behind his store.
Agents also watched as Tarrab and the informant loaded 200,000 round of ammunition into a rental truck at Hialeah Range and Gun. A woman who answered the phone Thursday said the owner was out until Friday and could not be reached for comment.
Undercover agents cut themselves in on the process by offering a warehouse for weapons storage. Semprun, identified by investigators as a leader of the organization, offered to pay $7,500 for the storage service. The plan was to load 1 million rounds of rifle ammunition into two cargo containers for a Maracaibo buyer.
Semprun also bragged about sending $4 million in profits to Venezuela and offered to pay a percentage for help moving more money, court papers said.
Many of the deliveries were destined for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, which commits most of the ransom kidnappings in Colombia, and the paramilitary umbrella group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. Both groups are on a State Department list of terrorist organizations.
"They do have weapons. They just don't have the ammunition available," said Lorenzo Toledo, a Miami supervisor with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. To have a licensed gun dealer "who has so much to lose involved is pretty uncommon, but I'm not surprised any more."
I was worried about SteyrAUG for a minute
Doesn;t look like he (the gun dealer) will get the enron or wolrdcom treatment. Its okay to bilk Mom and Pop of billions of dollars from their retirement account, but don't break the export rules and sell bullets to S. America.
Respect my authoriTY!
Oh well, the Eastern Euros will fill the ammo gap...