What could be the largest food stamp fraud bust in U.S. history caught on camera
Opa-locka Fruit and Produce Market didn’t just sell fruits and vegetables.
Instead, owners Karla Rodriguez Diaz and Luis Marzo Machado allegedly used their produce market inside the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market to bilk the government out of $2.4 million, Wifredo A. Ferrer, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said Wednesday.
Diaz and Machado were two of 22 people charged in 15 cases Wednesday in “Operation Stampede,” organized to bust business owners and their employees who allowed customers to use their government-issued EBT food stamp card as a means to get cash, in exchange for a cut. In total, Ferrer said there were more than $13 million in fraudulent food stamp transactions stemming from markets throughout South Florida, the largest food stamp fraud take-down in U.S. history.
“These retailers are flagrantly abusing the public trust by stealing millions of dollars from the federal food stamp program that is intended to provide low-income households with their needed basic provisions of food and nutrition,” Ferrer said.
He said the stores — mostly in Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market — would ring up food, but the customer “rarely” left with anything. They would leave with cash, and the owner would pocket a cut. Ferrer said the scheme involved thousands of SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — recipients.
In total, 15 people were arrested Tuesday and Wednesday, when police raided the flea market. Seven of the 22 people indicted are still at large, Ferrer said.
Flea market vendor Felix Lanza told Miami Herald news partner CBS4 that he had no idea what was going on: “Thank God, we don’t do that.”
Jack Heacock, director of the Florida Division of Public Assistance Fraud, said the arrests were only the beginning. Those people who received the money will likely be sanctioned, he said.
The defendants, all of whom were authorized to accept food stamps, face charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and food stamp/EBT fraud, according to the indictments. They face up to 20 years in prison and five years for food stamp fraud:
▪ Karla Rodriguez Diaz, 28, owns Opa Locka Fruit and Produce Market, LLC, at the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market, 12705 NW 42nd Ave. Diaz and Luis Marzo Machado, 30, redeemed over $2.4 million in food stamps between August 2014 and March 2016.
▪ Pedro Sanchez Barrero, 26, owns Pedro Produce in the flea market. Barrero, along with Antonia Barrero, 48, racked up about $2 million.
▪ Diocenila Castro, 49, of Miami, owns Castro Produce in the flea market. From November 2014 through March 2016, Castro redeemed over $1.5 million.
▪ Matias Jose Ramirez, 37, of Miami and Jorge Saladrigas Milian, 56, of Opa-locka, own Ramirez Produce and Jorge Produce in the flea market. From April 2014 through March 2016, they redeemed about $1.5 million.
▪ Reinaldo Arteaga, 62, of Miami Gardens owns Arteaga Produce in the flea market. Arteaga and Luisdian Hernandez Gonzalez, 22, redeemed over $1.2 million between August 2014 and March 2016.
▪ Zulfiqar Mithavayani, 51, of Miramar, owns ABC Food Market, 163 NW 14th St., and Jamal Al-Hawa, 60, of Davie, redeemed over $1.1 million beginning in March 2013.
▪ Maikel Manuel Riviaux, 42, of Hialeah, owns a seafood market, Pucho Fish Market, 2060 NW Opa-locka Blvd. From May 2015 through March 2016, Riviaux and his co-conspirators (who were not named) redeemed about $1 million at the fish and flea markets.
▪ Jose Antonio Gonzalez, 45, of Miami Gardens owns a seafood delivery route business, Los Corticos Fish Corp., 3310 NW 171st Terr. Between May 2015 and May 2016, Gonzalez and Noraida Pi Figueroa, 40, of Miami Gardens, redeemed about $1 million.
▪ Rafael Gonzalez Cuellar, 54, of Opa-locka owns Cuellar Produce Corp. in the flea market. Between January 2015 and May 2016, Cuellar and Luis Casola Rojas, 43, of Hialeah redeemed over $900,000.
▪ Katia Nunez Landeiro, 35, of Miami, owns Katy Produce in the flea market. Landeiro redeemed over $700,000 between July 2014 and March 2015.
▪ Idaysi Landeiro Reyes, 47, of Miami Gardens, owns Landeiro Produce in the flea market. Reyes and Javier Gallardo Gonzalez, 47, of Miami Gardens redeemed over $600,000 from July 2015 through March 2016.
▪ Nelson Chico, 59, of Hialeah, owns Rey Produce in the flea market. Chico and Luisdian Hernandez Gonzalez, 22, who was also charged in another of these cases, redeemed over $600,000.
▪ Fernando Fernandez Garcia, 33, of Miami, owns Santa Cruz Shark in the flea market. Garcia redeemed over $500,000 from December 2014 to March 2016.
▪ Luis Casola Rojas, 43, of Hialeah, owns Casola Produce in the flea market. Rojas was also charged in another of these cases. Rojas redeemed over $380,000 from October 2015 through March 2016.
▪ Angelo Socarras, 37, of Hialeah, owns Angelo Produce in the flea market. Socarras redeemed approximately $190,000 from October 2015 through March 2016.