South Florida

South Florida man found guilty of sending weapons to Colombian terrorist group

Relatives of members of the Colombia Police Department arrive near the scene where a car bomb exploded on Jan. 17, 2019, in Bogotá, Colombia. The National Liberation Army, known as ELN, claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Relatives of members of the Colombia Police Department arrive near the scene where a car bomb exploded on Jan. 17, 2019, in Bogotá, Colombia. The National Liberation Army, known as ELN, claimed responsibility for the bombing. TNS

A South Florida man pleaded guilty Thursday to shipping a cache of weapons inside air compressors to a violent Colombian rebel group at the center of an uncommon U.S. terrorism-support case.

Francisco Joseph Arcila Ramirez, who is a legal permanent resident in the United States, reached a plea agreement convicting him of providing “material support to a foreign terrorist organization,” the ELN, a leftist group that was responsible for the deadly bombing of a Bogotá police academy in January of this year. The group, also known as the National Liberation Army, did not use any weapons from Ramirez’s shipment in that attack, however.

Arcila, 36, faces up to 20 years in prison on the sole terrorism-support charge Dec. 19 before U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez. Related conspiracy and weapons charges will be dropped at that time under his plea agreement.

Arcila’s potentially high sentence would depend on whether the judge sides with a terrorism enhancement proposed by prosecutors Randy Hummel and Michael Sherwin. His defense attorney, Ana Davide, said she will oppose it in the hope of limiting Arcila’s prison time.

At Thursday’s hearing, Hummel summarized the plea-bargained case against Arcila, which involved an August 2018 shipment of firearms and assault-rifle magazines sold for roughly $26,000 to an ELN weapons broker. But the prosecutor said it captured only a portion of Arcila’s alleged South Florida weapons shipments to the U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

An initial indictment had charged Arcila and two other South Florida men with conspiring to buy pistols, semiautomatic rifles and other arms from licensed weapons dealers and secretly shipping them in air compressors to Colombia over several months. Arcila had bought the compressors at a Home Depot store in Little Havana, according to surveillance video footage. He then shipped them to his brother in Colombia, authorities said.

That original indictment was later amended to include charges accusing Arcila of providing material support to the ELN. In the past, the ELN has mainly been implicated in U.S. drug-smuggling prosecutions, not pure terrorism cases.

As part of his plea agreement, Arcila is cooperating with prosecutors and federal agents, including the FBI, who are working with their Colombian counterparts.

Colombian authorities have accused the ELN, which was founded in 1964, of carrying out January’s truck bombing of a national police academy in Bogotá that killed 21 people and wounded more than 70 others. The ELN has been expanding its profile as a criminal organization — funded largely by the drug trade, gold smuggling and kidnapping ransoms — after the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) struck a peace deal in 2016 and became a political party.

There is no indication that the weapons illegally shipped from South Florida to Colombia played a part in the deadly Bogotá bombing, authorities said. However, Colombian investigators are conducting a separate probe of weapons suppliers to the ELN, including Arcila’s brother and several others.

Details of the South Florida firearms-smuggling case were disclosed in two related criminal complaints filed in January. They said two of the defendants — Arcila and Gregory Fernando Ortega, who lived in Broward County — used a straw buyer to purchase dozens of firearms from Miami-area gun stores such as Lou’s Police Supply and then shipped them hidden inside Husky air compressors to Arcila’s brother in Colombia. Among the purchases: Glock, Draco and Zastava pistols, the complaints said.

In mid-March, Ortega pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally deal firearms and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

A year ago, the straw buyer, James Smith, began cooperating with agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and recorded conversations about the weapon transactions and shipments to Colombia, according to the complaints.

Smith pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy firearms charge in April and was sentenced to two years.

According to the complaints, Ortega admonished Smith not to “say anything about him” to federal agents about the firearms they had purchased a year ago. Ortega told the straw buyer that the agents would not be able to trace any of the weapons because the “serial numbers were scratched off.”

Ortega also told him that he was concerned about Arcila “getting caught,” the complaints said. Arcila arranged the firearms shipments and traveled to Colombia last fall.

In Colombia, the national police arrested Arcila’s brother, Alvaro Jay Arcila, and his wife, Ingrid Maldonado Perez, in Barranquilla. In a search of the couple’s home in October 2018, police found assorted firearms parts and accessories, along with four Husky air compressors. One of the compressors had a Home Depot identifier tag with a store inventory number, which was traced by federal agents to the Home Depot store on Southwest Eighth Street in Little Havana.