Customs agents at Miami International Airport in April decided to open a shipment from Maracaibo,Venezuela, that contained empty cases for vehicle batteries.
The agents investigated further. And by October they discovered a group in Miami that illegally tried to export to Venezuela eight handguns, 23,500 rounds of ammunition and 19 high-capacity magazines concealed inside some of the empty automobile battery cases, according to a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court by Homeland Security Investigations.
It’s only the most recent case involving arms smuggling from South Florida. In September, a case involving an alleged weapons’ shipment to Bolivia in packages marked as auto parts turned up in federal court dockets.
The current case began April 16 when an HSI special agent working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers opened the Maracaibo shipment addressed to a resident in the 3800 block of Southwest 132nd Avenue, near the intersection of Florida’s Turnpike and Bird Road in West Kendall.
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According to the criminal complaint, federal agents suspected that something was amiss and decided to place the Kendall address under surveillance.
During the investigation, agents observed several suspects entering and exiting the Kendall property.
At about 10 p.m. Oct. 20, investigators observed two suspects “entering [the] property and delivering and dropping off handguns,” according to a court document.
Eventually, the suspects were seen transporting from the Kendall property to a shipping company the weapons and ammunition hidden inside some of the car battery cases, according to the complaint.
Some of the cases in the shipment to Venezuela did contain auto batteries, but others — though marked batteries — contained the weapons, ammunition and high-capacity magazines, according to the complaint.
“The battery cases with glue residue and modified compartments [were] stuffed with eight handguns, approximately 23,500 rounds of ammunition and 19 high-capacity magazines inside,” the criminal complaint said.
The two defendants were identified as José Alexander Gutiérrez Morales and Alfredo Montilla Hernández. The person mentioned in the criminal complaint as living in the Kendall property to which the Maracaibo shipment of empty battery cases was addressed was not arrested. The person who sent the shipment from Maracaibo was identified as Ender Soto.
The complaint does not say whether Soto was arrested or questioned and what his role was in the case.
Attorneys for Montilla Hernández and Gutiérrez Morales could not be reached for comment. An HSI spokeswoman said she could not comment on the case because it was still active in federal court.