A man linked to a ring that smuggled undocumented Brazilian immigrants to South Florida has plead not guilty in Miami federal court .
Brazilian native Mauricio Ribeiro Prates, 45, is facing at least 20 years in the federal penitentiary if convicted of the three counts of smuggling in a grand jury indictment handed down in Miami .
In this latest case of Brazilian migrant smuggling, smugglers stole or forged Italian passports and gave them to Brazilians in exchange for thousands of dollars in fees. The Brazilians entered the United States posing as Italians, which allowed them to obtain a three-month stay without first seeking a U.S. visa at a consulate abroad.
Instead of leaving the United States at the end of the three months, the migrants stayed illegally.
Smuggling from Brazil has come into focus in recent years. In 2012, for example, authorities broke up a smuggling ring that brought undocumented Brazilians to South Florida via a convoluted system that included flights from Brazil to France, then England and finally the Bahamas where the migrants boarded boats for the final leg of the journey.
Investigators learned of the scheme involving Ribeiro after immigration authorities admitted Marcos Cesar De Souza Franca and Claudilene Alves De Souza Franca into the United States at the Arizona -Mexico border.
Saying they were tourists, the couple presented border patrol agents at the Douglas, Ariz. border crossing with Italian passports. They later traveled to South Florida, according to a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court.
The couple settled in Pompano Beach and used their passports to apply for a Florida driver’s license. That was when the scheme began to unravel. Someone grew suspicious and decided to check. Soon, agents from Homeland Security Investigations learned that the couple’s Italian passports had been used before by other foreign nationals entering the United States.
More clues came in when two travelers with Italian passports bearing the same numbers as those presented by Marcos and Claudilene De Souza Franca arrived separately at Miami and John F. Kennedy international airports.
When officials queried Italian authorities, they learned that the two people who arrived at MIA and JFK were the legitimate owners of the Italian passports.
Authorities in Rome stated that no Italian passports had ever been issued to Marcos and Claudilene De Souza Franca.
On Sept. 19, 2013, when Ribeiro, his wife and son arrived at JFK fro Rio de Janeiro, he was arrested. He confessed, according to the criminal complaint.
“Ribeiro Prates waived his Miranda rights and told agents that he has engaged in conspiracies to smuggle illegal aliens into the United States,” the criminal complaint says. “He revealed he has referred approximately 40 aliens to multiple alien smugglers located in Brazil. Ribeiro Prates stated he was compensated by the smugglers with $500 to $1,000 per alien.”
Ribeiro also advised the agents that he had met Marcos and Claudeline at a travel agency in Brazil, PR Viagens e Turismo.
On Sept., 25, 2013, agents questioned Marcos and Claudilene at their Pompano Beach apartment where they acknowledged that they were Brazilian and confessed to buying the Italian passports from someone they knew as Maurio, the criminal complaint said.
In subsequent interrogations, Marcos and Claudilene said Maurio was Ribeiro Prates.
They also acknowledge paying Ribeiro $30,000 for the fraudulent Italian passports.
Riberiro’s attorney, an assistant federal public defender, could not be reached for comment