A Miami-Dade police internal affairs lieutenant accused of acting as a henchman for cocaine smugglers was relieved of duty Wednesday as he made his first appearance in federal court.
Lt. Ralph Mata, wearing a light-olive inmate jump suit, appeared before a judge one day after his shocking arrest. Federal agents say he protected cocaine smugglers, gave them sensitive police intelligence and even concocted a plan to assassinate two drug rivals.
Mata, 45, did not speak in court as his wife and two fellow officers watched from the gallery. Federal prosecutors announced they would ask the court to hold Mata without bond while he awaits trial. A judge on Monday will make that decision.
Mata eventually will be extradited to New Jersey, where prosecutors have charged him with aiding a conspiracy to traffic cocaine.
“We look forward to learning about the government’s evidence, investigating the case and preparing for trial,” said his Miami attorney, Bruce Fleisher.
Mata’s arrest stunned the police department, where he has worked since 1992, including stints as a canine officer and as a lieutenant in Miami Gardens, where he worked on busting drug and prostitution rings.
He has been with internal affairs, known officially as the Professional Compliance Bureau, since March 2010. The unit is dedicated to rooting out misconduct and crimes of fellow officers.
The police department has declined to comment on the arrest of Mata, who was relieved of duty with pay.
Federal prosecutors say Mata — who went by the nickname “The Milk Man” — helped plan the execution of two rival drug dealers, even proposing that his “contacts” could dress up like cops and pull over the men before killing them. The plan was eventually scrapped.
He purchased firearms and flew them to the Dominican Republic for the group, according to the FBI, accompanied a suitcase full of drug money to the island, used his position as a cop to give secret intelligence to the group, and suggested ways to smuggle in dope through Miami.
On Wednesday, more details emerged about the drug smugglers who apparently worked with the feds in building the case against Mata as their associate in Miami-Dade.
According to federal court records, Juan C. Arias, Martin Nuñez-Lora and Persio Nuñez were arrested in April 2012. All have since pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute cocaine, although none has yet been sentenced, according to court records.
The extent of any cooperation with the government against Mata is unclear, although it could help persuade a judge to give the trio lighter sentences.
For years, agents say, the smugglers had been importing drugs in shipping containers containing bananas from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.
In January 2012, investigators seized $400,000 from the Bergen County, N.J., home of Arias. It was that seizure, according to federal court documents, that led the smugglers to suspect one of their own had robbed them.
But Mata, according to police, checked with his fellow law enforcement officers and confirmed that it was indeed a Drug Enforcement Administration bust, even confirming the name of the agent on the case.
Then, in April 2013, investigators tracked a shipment of bananas and drugs arriving at a “port in Florida” that was later driven by truck to a rented warehouse in Passaic County, N.J.
Investigators covertly listened to phone calls in which the group discussed the shipment. When the truck arrived in New Jersey three days later, agents swooped in, arresting Nuñez, Nuñez-Lora and Arias at a nearby hotel.
Another shipment bound for New Jersey — 87 kilograms of cocaine alongside the bananas — was seized in Florida the same day.
As word spread about the arrests, the smugglers’ associates reached out to Mata, who immediately began checking with local sources within law enforcement to find out what had happened, according to a criminal complaint.
Lawyers for Arias and Nuñez-Lora could not be reached for comment. A lawyer for Nuñez declined to comment.
As part of the federal plea deal, Arias has to give up a condo at the posh Icon Brickell building, land in Opa-locka, a 40-foot yacht and a Bentley luxury car. Nuñez must also give up a unit at Icon.