Three Colombians Plead Guilty to Supporting Terrorist Group
by Jim Kouri, CPP
WASHINGTON - As a result of a 22-month investigation, three Colombian nationals have pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to provide material support to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a designated foreign terrorist organization, and alien smuggling, Julie L. Myers, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher of the Criminal Division announced during a press conference on Monday.
Victor Daniel Salamanca (Salamanca), 64, Carmen Maria Ponton Caro (Ponton), 38, and Edizon Ramirez Gamboa (Ramirez), 40, all from Bogota, Colombia, pleaded guilty this week in Miami before US District Judge Joan A. Lenard.
Salamanca and Ponton entered their pleas today for conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization. Ramirez, a former immigration inspector with Colombia's Department of Administrative Security (DAS), pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy to commit alien smuggling and bringing an alien to the United States for private financial gain.
The three were arrested along with seven other co-defendants in Colombia between January and February of 2006, after working with undercover US government informants. As part of an ICE sting operation, the informants posed as FARC operatives seeking illicit travel to Miami for the purpose of laundering FARC drug money from the United States to Colombia in order to finance additional drug and arms purchases for the FARC.
This latest sentencing concludes an international investigation that stopped ten terrorist supporters from putting their personal greed before the safety of American and Colombian citizens," said Julie L. Myers, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for ICE.
"This case is a chilling reminder of the threat posed by public corruption and the facilitation of unmonitored passage into our country," she said.
Salamanca admitted that between May 25, 2005, and January 2, 2006, he furnished a variety of criminal services to 4 undercover informants he believed to be FARC operatives on a mission to travel to the United States to launder FARC drug money. To help smuggle these individuals to the United States, Salamanca went to great lengths to conceal the undercover informants' true identities and alleged ties to the FARC.
According to ICE reports, Salamanca bought airline tickets on their behalf; assisted in changing names to conceal criminal histories by altering records at the Colombian national identity registry; provided a fraudulently obtained Colombian identity card and Colombian passport; provided false Spanish identity cards, Spanish driver's licenses, and Spanish passports, which did not require a U.S. visa for entry into the United States; and agreed to smuggle the informants through immigration at Bogota's El Dorado International Airport. Salamanca charged more than $10,000 for these arrangements.
In addition to these travel services, Salamanca offered to broker the sale of fifty 50-caliber guns, 700 infra-red equipped AK-74 rifles, and two helicopters to the FARC. He offered services of his contacts at DAS and the Colombian federal prosecutor's office that could erase someone's criminal record. Additionally, he offered to introduce the informants to a medical doctor capable of disguising a person's fingerprints through surgical procedures.
In addition, Salamanca introduced the informants to his money laundering contact, co-defendant Julio Cesar Lopez. Through a series of meetings, Salamanca and Lopez agreed to launder more than four million dollars of purported FARC drug proceeds from Miami to Bogota.
As a test, Lopez, in coordination with Salamanca, directed a believed FARC operative to make a $30,000 money drop in Miami and to make two $9,000 deposits into a private Miami bank account. Then, Salamanca and Lopez arranged for the money, minus commissions and expenses, to be delivered to the FARC operative's associates in Bogota.
Ponton admitted to ICE investigators that her principal role in the conspiracy to support the FARC was smuggling three informants she believed were FARC guerillas through the Bogota International Airport. In November 2005, she coordinated with her associates, co-defendants Jalal Sadat Moheisen, Jorge de los Reyes Bautista Martinez, and Nicolas Ricardo Tapasco Romero (Tapasco), to arrange for a DAS immigration inspector (co-defendant Ramirez) to shepherd the informants around immigration controls at the Bogota International Airport.
After the informants were able to sidestep outgoing immigration inspection in Bogota, they used their fraudulent Spanish passports that Salamanca provided as identification to board flights to the United States and successfully arrived in Miami. The airport smuggling fee was $4,000 per person.
In pleading guilty, Ramirez admitted that he profited by using his official position as a DAS immigration official and helped smuggle an undercover informant through the immigration inspection area at the Bogota International Airport, enabling the informant to travel unchecked to the United States with a fraudulent Spanish passport.
On the day the informant was smuggled in to the United States, Tapasco relayed identifying information of the informant to Ramirez through his co-worker. Once the informant entered the immigration inspection area at the Bogota airport, security cameras captured Ramirez stepping out to meet the informant and escorting him around all immigration checkpoints. The traveler then passed through a security checkpoint and proceeded to board a US-bound commercial flight. Following a brief stopover in Panama, the undercover informant arrived in the United States at the Miami International Airport holding his fake Spanish passport.
Salamanca, Ponton, and Ramirez are the last three of a total of 10 individuals indicted by a Miami federal grand jury on Jan. 3, 2006, on terrorism, alien smuggling, and money laundering charges. The indictments resulted from an ICE investigation dubbed "Operation Pipeline." All 10 defendants have been convicted.
Salamanca and Ponton face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Ramirez faces 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Ramirez is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 15, 2008. Sentencing for Salamanca and Ponton has been set for Feb. 25, 2008.
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. He's former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed "Crack City" by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for a number of organizations. He's also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country. He writes for many police and crime magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer, Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and others. He's appeared as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, Fox News, etc. His book Assume The Position is available at Amazon.Com, Booksamillion.com, and can be ordered at local bookstores. Kouri holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master of arts in public administration and he's a board certified protection professional.