In a parking lot of the sprawling Miami International Mall, a man with $87,900 in a box handed over the cash to two undercover federal agents as partial payment for an upcoming cocaine delivery from Venezuela.
The information, contained in a Miami federal courts document, details the second major Venezuela-related cocaine-trafficking case to be prosecuted in South Florida in the last two years.
The case, stemming from a September 2010 undercover buy, is similar to another, much smaller federal case two years later involving the arrest of a Venezuelan national at the Opa-locka airport.
In that March 2012 case, two Venezuelan-American pilots allegedly transported hundreds of kilos of cocaine from Valencia, an industrial city west of Caracas, to South Florida. The pilots fled, but the Venezuelan national – on the scene to meet the plane – was arrested and plead guilty to drug trafficking charges.
The current federal case – much larger and much more elaborate – came to light after several suspects who originally plead not guilty after their arrest, changed their plea to guilty.
One of the latest to switch was the lead suspect, Roberto Mendez Hurtado, who appeared before U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke on Nov. 20. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 12.
Mendez’s attorney, Joaquin Perez, declined comment.
A document indicated that the Mendez organization might have been smuggling drugs since 2006 or earlier.
The case was filed in Miami federal court in July 2011. The grand jury indictment contained charges against a total of 13 defendants and provided detail information of how the case came together:
Some hundreds of kilos of cocaine were shipped from an illegal airstrip about 280 miles south of Caracas, then transported to Central America or airdropped from planes to waters off the British Virgin Islands, according to federal court records in Miami.
Then, the drugs were carried to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and finally to the U.S. mainland.
Starting in March 2009, the defendants contacted a U.S. pilot, not identified in court record and asked him to buy an airplane, pick up cocaine loads, then airdrop the shipments near the British Virgin Island where fast boat crews would be waiting. The pilot also would be expected to fly shipments to landing strips in Guatemala and Honduras.
The pilot was working undercover with Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
Court records show that the cocaine was loaded by members of the Colombian guerrilla organization FARC or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, who brought the drugs from neighboring Colombia.
Drug traffickers provided the pilot with a false Venezuelan passport and identification documents, the indictment says. An accomplice in the U. S. Virgin Islands was to coordinate delivery of the drug loads using radio equipment.
Bribes were paid to a British Virgin Islands customs officer to collect proceeds from sales of the cocaine in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, the indictment says. The customs officer also allowed drug traffickers to enter the British Virgin Islands for distribution and sale of the cocaine.
According to court records, the drug-trafficking organization began sending money to the pilot in wire transfers from the Dominican Republic in April 2010.
Then, in June 2010, the pilot traveled to Aberdeen, South Dakota to purchase a twin-engine Cessna 404 Titan for $380,000. Court records show the DEA actually bought the plane. Three months later, the pilot make a pickup of the first loads of cocaine, the indictment says.
On Sept. 13, 2010, a suspect in South Florida delivered the thousands in a cardboard box to two undercover agents at the International Mall near Northwest 107th Avenue and 14th Street in Doral, a court document shows.
Two other suspects, including Mendez, “coordinated the delivery of this money as a payment for the upcoming drug smuggling operation,” according to the court document.
In mid-2011, federal agents began making arrests and dismantling the organization.