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6 Arrested in Fla. Gun Running Ring That Supplied Colombian Rebels

A broken toilet in a Miami warehouse led to the discovery of enough guns and ammunition for "a small army," a federal prosecutor said Tuesday at a hearing for an accused leader of a South Florida ring that sold military-style weapons to Colombian rebel and paramilitary groups.

So far, six people have been arrested in connection with an alleged scheme to buy guns and ammunition in South Florida, pack them into large appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines and ship them to Venezuela in 40-foot cargo containers. A seventh person who allegedly sold guns to the ring remains at large.

Federal law enforcement sources said Tuesday that their "big find" helped break up a major arms supplier to Colombian groups. According to court documents, plans to illegally ship 1 million rounds of ammunition in July and August were interrupted.

Profit, not politics, was the primary motivator, the court documents show.

An informant wearing a wire recorded one ringleader bragging that he had moved $4 million worth of munitions and could make other people rich, too.

A second was recorded saying that some of the guns went to FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the leftist rebel group that has been trying to topple the government since 1964, and AUC, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary umbrella group. The informant described the scope of the operation, more than 30 cargo containers over the past two years to Caracas and Maracaibo.

At the hearing Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Damian convinced U.S. Magistrate John J. O'Sullivan that Rafael Samper, 40, of Pembroke Pines, should be held without bond for leasing warehouse space where the weapons cache was found on June 12.

An arrest affidavit by Ali Berisha, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said several boxes of guns were hidden in a false ceiling at a warehouse on Northwest 70th Street near the Doral section of Miami. The guns fell through and broke the toilet, which leaked into other storage units. The neighboring tenants forced their way in to stop the water, discovered the weapons and called police.

Samper's attorney, Mario Cano, said his client was in the export business and didn't know the guns were there.

Federal agents seized nine handguns, 39 rifles with the serial numbers removed, seven rifles with intact serial numbers and several large pallets containing more than 200,000 rounds of ammunition from the storage space rented in Samper's name. At least 10 of the rifles were automatic, according to the court records.

The find led to other warehouse stashes of guns and ammunition and set off an investigation involving electronic monitoring and confidential informants. Finally, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement set up a dummy arms shipment, using an undercover informant and rented warehouse space.

The phony July 23 shipment was confiscated at the Port of Miami.

Samper and four others were arrested Aug. 4. They were charged in a criminal complaint with conspiring to violate the federal Arms Export Control Act by selling military-style weapons in Venezuela without obtaining a license from the U.S. State Department. Indictments could come soon.

Two other men were charged with selling firearms without a license. Raul DeMolina, 69, was arrested Aug. 6 and is free on $100,000 bail. Rodney Sharp, described by an informant as the ring's "gunsmith," has not been arrested.

The informant identified Samper as a shipper, stash house organizer and money launderer. The others were identified in documents as weapons buyer Edgar Semprun, 53, of Kendall; funding source Antonio Tarrab, 31; money launderer Miguel Palacio, 46; and runner Bilmer Paz, 29.

Semprun, Palacio and Paz are free on bail. Federal prosecutors plan to ask O'Sullivan on Thursday to keep Tarrab behind bars.

Tarrab was captured on tape last month discussing the two dummy ammunition shipments, according to a search warrant affidavit by ATF agent Joshua Murr.

Talking with the informant, "Tarrab specifically states that the shipment of ammunition was bound for the AUC and that the next shipment is intended for the FARC," the affidavit stated.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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