A Bolivian man pleaded not guilty in Miami federal court Thursday to charges of attempting to smuggle 11 AK-47 rifles to his homeland.
Javier Nenos Rea, 32, was arrested Aug. 27, apparently as part of a broader international investigation that also led to the arrest of eight other people in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Two of the eight suspects were identified as police officers and three others as Bolivian postal service employees.
Bolivian investigators also seized a number of weapons in coordinated raids in Santa Cruz, according to Bolivian press reports that emerged before and after Nenos was arrested here.
The media reports quoted Bolivian government officials as saying that weapons were regularly sent from the United States to Bolivia and then shipped to a Brazilian criminal drug-trafficking organization known as Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), which is largely based in Sao Paulo.
Several of the media reports in Bolivia indicated that a Bolivian living in the United States arranged for some of the weapons shipments to Bolivia. He was identified in the press reports as Fernando Gius Peinado, but he could not be located in U.S. public records.
The case is being investigated in the United States by special agents of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The case came to light in Miami when an HSI special agent filed a criminal complaint in federal court.
A grand jury on Tuesday indicted Nenos on arms-smuggling charges. If convicted, Nenos could be sentenced up to 20 years in the federal penitentiary. Nenos was arrested in a sting operation. He thought he was dealing with an illegal arms dealer, who in reality was an undercover agent.
The indictment contains a few new details in the case. It says Nenos told an undercover agent that he wanted to establish a long-term relationship to purchase weapons several times.
“He would sell the firearms to his clients in Bolivia,” the indictment says. “He expected to make future orders with the undercover agent depending on demand, eventually coordinating the deals directly from Bolivia without having to travel to the United States.”
ICE officials declined comment on the ground that the case is still under investigation. Nenos’ attorney, Bunmi Lomax, from the federal public defender’s office, also declined comment.
On Thursday, Nenos appeared in court, his hands cuffed and his ankles shackled, wearing a khaki inmate uniform. He spoke in Spanish in a barely audible voice.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the case is the possible link between Nenos’ arrest in Miami and the arrests in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
An article on the website of the Santa Cruz de la Sierra newspaper El Deber quoted Bolivian government officials as saying that eight suspects were captured in Bolivia in late August — around the same time Nenos was picked up in Miami.
The suspects in Bolivia were shown to journalists in two groups on Aug. 29. Then they appeared in court and were ordered held.
Bolivian authorities also seized several weapons in various raids around Santa Cruz de la Sierra, El Deber said.
El Deber said Bolivian government officials believed the weapons were being transshipped to PCC, the Brazilian criminal group.
PCC has been around since the 1990s and is involved in a “bloody ongoing feud with police” in Sao Paulo, according to the website InSightCrime, which focuses on organized crime in the Americas.
“The group, now the largest and best-organized criminal organization in Brazil, is believed to have members in two-thirds of the country’s states and controls drug-trafficking routes between Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.”