A Guatemalan is awaiting trial in federal court after customs officers in Miami discovered $5 million worth of heroin in a shipment later delivered to the defendant outside a Mexican restaurant in Vermont, according to court records.
Diego Walther Anibal Mejía Paredes is being held without bond after his Oct. 8 arrest outside Cilantro in Manchester, a town in southern Vermont near the New York state line.
The case sheds further light on the spreading use of heroin in the United States, particularly in the Northeast. U.S. health authorities believe a veritable epidemic of heroin use is taking hold across the country.
“Heroin use has increased across the U.S. among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels,” according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. “As heroin use has increased, so have heroin-related overdose deaths. Between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013.”
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At the same time, the case illustrates efforts by drug traffickers to ship heroin and other illicit narcotics by various methods. In recent months, authorities here and in other countries have found heroin, cocaine and ingredients for synthetic drugs concealed in computers, shipping containers, fruit and fish.
The case, first reported in the Burlington Free Press, began in Miami on Oct. 6 when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials inspected a shipment from Guatemala.
They discovered 37 kilos of heroin concealed in two boxes — each wrapped in cellophane, according to a criminal complaint filed by a special agent of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Each box contained smaller packages, each filled with a powdery substance, the HSI agent’s complaint said. One of the boxes was labeled Incaparina and the other Recimax de Incaparina.
Incaparina is a mixture corn and soy flour widely used in Central America.
“The contents of the three packages from each box (6 packages total) were field-tested by CBP officials in Florida,” the HSI criminal complaint said. “The substance from each of the tested packages tested positive for heroin.”
Miami investigators forwarded the shipment to the HSI office in Burlington, Vermont, because it was originally addressed to a José Medina. The address on the shipment matched that of the restaurant in Manchester.
On Oct.8, investigators delivered the shipment. One of them posed as the driver of a parcel delivery truck.
Agents assigned to monitor the delivery noticed that a man who had been seated inside a silver Audi A6 parked in front of the restaurant got out of the vehicle when the delivery truck arrived.
The man turned out to be the suspect, Paredes, according to the complaint.
“Paredes approached the agent posing as the delivery person and explained that Paredes was waiting for the package and that José Medina was his cousin,” the HSI complaint said.
Paredes took the boxes, put them inside the Audi and drove away, the complaint said. As he drove, Paredes made several unusual maneuvers that suggested that either he knew or suspected surveillance.
“Specifically,” the complaint said, “Paredes appeared to be hyper-vigilant of his surroundings and appeared to be checking for surveillance.
“Among other things, Paredes was constantly checking his rear-view mirror, and at one point, he took three right turns, almost returning to his starting location, before continuing on his trip.”
After following him for a few miles, the complaint says, law enforcement finally stopped Paredes’ vehicle.
After his arrest, Paredes told investigators that the shipment was intended for him and admitted to lying about having a cousin named José Medina. But Paredes insisted that he did not know the powdery substance was heroin.
Asked what he intended to do with the parcels, Paredes told investigators that he had been instructed to send a text message on one of his two phones to an individual named José in Guatemala, according to the HSI criminal complaint.
“He has been told by José that José would send someone to him to pick up the packages,” the complaint said.
The complaint did not say if Paredes had sent the text message or if José had agreed to send someone to retrieve the parcels from the defendant.
Paredes was recently indicted and has since pleaded not guilty. The trial is scheduled to take place in federal court in Burlington, Vermont’s largest city.
Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @AlfonsoChardy