Crime

Authorities uncover network that smuggled cocaine in produce from Latin America

This produce warehouse in the 1600 block and Northwest 20th Street in Miami was allegedly used to deliver cocaine in yucca boxes, according to federal court documents.
This produce warehouse in the 1600 block and Northwest 20th Street in Miami was allegedly used to deliver cocaine in yucca boxes, according to federal court documents. EL NUEVO HERALD

Federal agents have discovered a drug-trafficking ring that imported cocaine into South Florida inside shipping containers from Latin America, the second such case in recent months.

In March, federal agents arrested six Miami-Dade and Broward residents in connection with the transport of cocaine in boxes of bananas that arrived aboard ships at the Port of Palm Beach.

The latest case began April 7 when agents received a tip about a cocaine shipment from Costa Rica coming to PortMiami aboard a container ship, according to a criminal complaint filed by a special agent of Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The manifest said it was filled with 1,025 boxes and bags of produce including yucca, cassava, squash and pumpkin, according to the complaint.

Customs and Border Protection agents opened the container and inspected the boxes of produce They discovered several thin packages concealed inside the cardboard walls of five boxes containing yucca, according to the criminal complaint. The concealed packages contained a powdery white substance that turned out to be cocaine, the complaint says.

Investigators left the packages inside the boxes and later checked to see who had placed the order. According to the complaint, shipping records showed that the container had come from Costa Produce S.A. in Paraiso, a city in the Costa Rican province of Cartago. In Miami, the container was being handled by America’s Customs Brokers, the complaint said.

A company representative told agents that an individual named Cesar inquired twice about when the Costa Rican container would be released. He also left instructions to deliver the produce to a warehouse along the 1600 block of Northwest 20th Street in Miami.

Investigators decided to deliver the shipment themselves in order to catch those involved in the scheme. First, though, they replaced the cocaine in the yucca boxes with a “sham” substance. On the afternoon of April 15, a truck delivered the container to the warehouse.

Later that day, the criminal complaint says, two warehouse employees met the truck and signed the receipt for the container. A few hours later, the complaint says, a man later identified as Ulises Ruiz arrived at the warehouse. A second man, identified in the complaint only as a “Hispanic male,” drove up in a white Fiat and put three produce boxes in the trunk.

A few minutes later, Ruiz removed the three produce boxes from the Fiat and placed them in the trunk of a black Cadillac Escalade, according to the complaint.

After Ruiz drove away from the warehouse, federal agents asked police to stop the vehicle for a traffic violation. Investigators found the three boxes in the trunk containing the “sham” cocaine and arrested Ruiz.

He is now awaiting trial.

Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter @AlfonsoChardy

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