A man will be sentenced in October in Miami federal court after pleading guilty two weeks ago to heroin trafficking in a case that may be linked to a major new U.S.-Colombia initiative to dismantle criminal bands in the South American country.
Manuel Ventura Rivera’s Oct. 9 sentencing before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola will mark another milestone in the war on drugs, particularly against heroin-trafficking rings. Heroin is now considered a highly dangerous drug blamed for a record increase in the number of overdose deaths throughout the country.
Ventura Rivera was one of 10 men and women indicted Jan. 13 by a federal grand jury in Miami on charges of conspiracy to import large amounts of heroin from Colombia. The website of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador said in an article May 25 that when members of the gang were arrested in Colombia, authorities seized 25 kilos of heroin and more than 17 kilos of marijuana.
Several Colombian news websites and newspapers said at the time of the arrests that the gang shipped heroin to Miami concealed inside wooden coffins, guitars, hats, arts and crafts and food.
The Colombian websites also suggested that the arrests could be connected to the recent joint U.S.-Colombia effort to take down the Úsuga Clan, reportedly one of Colombia’s largest and most dangerous criminal band.
“For the moment,” according to El Espectador, “it is being investigated if band members were connected to the Úsuga Clan given that some of the suspects bore that last name,”
When the U.S. Attorney in Miami, Wifredo Ferrer, traveled to Bogotá on June 23 and met with Colombian President Juan Manual Santos to announce an intensification of the joint fight against the criminal bands, known as bacrim [short for bandas criminales in Spanish], the U.S. government disclosed the indictments and arrests of 17 members of the Úsuga Clan gang, including leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga David for whose capture the State Department is offering a $5 million reward.
There was no confirmation from U.S. officials whether the Ventura Rivera case is linked to the Úsuga Clan indicrments. The Ventura Rivera indictment was not one of the indictments announced June 23. But the Ventura Rivera indictment also included charges against two men with the last name of Úsuga — Libardo Alsonso Úsuga Higuita and Juan Pablo Úsuga Rivera. El Espectador said Juan Pablo was Libardo’s son.
The Jan. 13 indictment against 10 defendants, including the two Úsuga men and Ventura Rivera, does not provide specifics on how the gang allegedly shipped the heroin to Miami.
But reporting by Colombian news outlets and Miami federal court records associated with the Ventura Rivera guilty plea provide some clues.
El Espectador said in May that an investigation that lasted two years involving Colombian Police anti-narcotics officers and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents found that heroin was hidden in the wooden coffins, musical instruments and arts and crafts that were then shipped to Miami via Venezuela.
The Radio Colmundo website described Úsuga Higuita as leader of the gang and another suspect arrested in May. A court document associated with Ventura Rivera’s guilty plea said the defendant has joined in the heroin-trafficking conspiracy between April 2012 and October 2013.
While some of the people listed in the Jan. 13 indictment were extradited from Colombia, the ones arrested in May have not yet been sent to the United States. They were listed as fugitive earlier in the year.
Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter @AlfonsoChardy