Venezuela

Venezuelan man accused of smuggling guns is fighting the charges in Miami

In a file photo, Customs and Border Protection officials review typical evidence at a seized weapons store in Miami-Dade County.
In a file photo, Customs and Border Protection officials review typical evidence at a seized weapons store in Miami-Dade County. Miami Herald File

One of five Venezuelans accused of smuggling firearms and ammunition to their homeland from South Florida has pleaded not guilty and demanded a trial, according to Miami federal court records.

Luis Antonio Urdaneta Pozo was indicted by a Miami federal grand jury Feb. 16 and arrested in Orlando seven days later.

The case is linked to another involving three Venezuelans in South Florida who eventually pleaded guilty to charges of trying to export weapons and ammunition to their country.

Both cases helped uncover a little-known gun-smuggling pipeline between South Florida and Venezuela. One person familiar with the case said he the defendants were not sending firearms to Venezuela for political reasons, but to sell them to buyers within their country or in neighboring South American countries.

Urdaneta Pozo had been initially scheduled to be arraigned last Wednesday, but neither he nor his lawyer appeared before Judge John O’Sullivan. The reason was that the arraignment had taken place the week before, without prior notice given on the docket sheet.

Bijan Sebastian Parwaresch, Urdaneta Pozo’s attorney, said his client is not guilty.

“There is no evidence against my client,” Parwaresch told el Nuevo Herald. “He is completely innocent and we are going to prove it in court.”

The case came to light in April 2016 when customs agents at Miami International Airport opened a package that had arrived from Maracaibo, a Venezuelan seaport, containing empty boxes for vehicle batteries. It had been sent by a person identified by shipping records as Ender Soto.

Special agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, tracked the package. It led them to two Venezuelans, Alfredo Alejandro Montilla Hernández and Joséd Alexander Gutiérrez Morales.

A third Venezuelan, Abrahán José Aguilar Sánchez, emerged in the case a month after the Maracaibo package was discovered.

After Aguilar Sánchez arrived in Miami from Maracaibo on May 14, 2016, passport control officials at MIA pulled him from the immigration line, questioned him and seized his cellphone where they found as a contact Ender Soto, according to an HSI criminal complaint.

It had no details about who Soto was, but a person familiar with the case said he had resided in Miami, but was deported.

HSI investigators also linked Aguilar Sánchez to one of the two defendants arrested Oct. 21, Montilla Hernández and Gutiérrez Morales.

The three Venezuelans arrested last year have pleaded guilty and are expected to be sentenced in April.

On Feb. 16, the Miami grand jury indicted the five other Venezuelans, including Urdaneta Pozo, on the firearms charges.

In the new case, investigators allege that the defendants bought or stole 10 guns and five assault rifles as well as 54 pounds of ammunition, which — according to the indictment — two of them hid in their luggage to Venezuela.

The defendants, the indictment said, “exported ammunition by packing it in their luggage for flights from Miami, Florida, to Venezuela.”

Those two defendants, the indictment said, were Ender Enrique Soto Hernández and Ender Alberto Soto Hernández.

The indictment did not say if they are related, but the person familiar with the case said they are brothers and that one of them was the one who sent the package from Maracaibo that uncovered the case.

Court records do not say if the others named in the indictment are in Florida or at large in Venezuela.

Only Urdaneta Pozo has a lawyer listed on the docket sheet, which would indicate that the others likely are in Venezuela.

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