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A federal judge on Friday sentenced a former official of the Venezuelan Air Force (FAV) to 24 months in prison after he plead guilty to conspiracy to export more than 650 MAK90 assault rifles and ammunition from Florida to guerrilla groups in Colombia.
The former Venezuelan official, Romulo Alfredo Martinez, was arrested on November 23, 2003, at Newark Airport in New Jersey.
According to court testimony, Martinez guided airplanes loaded with arms towards Colombian territory from a Venezuelan control tower in a border zone with Colombia. At least 34 MAK 90 assault rifles sent by the defendant have been confiscated by Colombian authorities from members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) and from the Army of National Liberation (ELN), according to the investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
A former General and a Major of the Venezuelan Air Force (FAV) both confirmed that the description of Martinez, who is about 50 years old, corresponds to that of a former pilot of the Aviation school of Maracay who became a Lieutenant before retiring at the end of the 1980's. Manuel Andara, ex-general of the FAV, explained that Martinez had requested retirement after a personal problem with a rank companion and that Martinez had then traveled to work to the United States.
Martinez’ lawyer, David Markus, said that he preferred not to comment on the relationship between his client and the Venezuelan military.
“Even the government agrees that Mr. Martinez played a small role in the case,'' Markus said when commenting on the sentence given by the Federal judge in Miami, Michael Moore. According to Markus, several of the other defendants became government informants during the case.
The trafficking network operated from June of 1998 to January of 1999, when a grand jury in Miami indicted them on charges of violating arms exportation laws. The accused were Martinez, an American businessman Gerald Morey, a pilot of Haitian origin Gerald Ducheine, and another Venezuelan, Jose Gregorio Lugo.
According to the charges, the defendants falsified documents to acquire the guns in US gun stores.
The arms were sent in small airplanes owned by the company Lobster Air. The planes made a stop in Haiti to refuel and continued on to the airport of San Antonio of the Tachira, a town near the Colombian border.
From the control tower of the San Antonio airport, according to court documents, Martinez then directed the airplanes to clandestine landing strips in Colombian territory where the arms were unloaded.
According to a pilot who worked for Lobster Air, the details of the flights were discussed over drinks at the Military Circle, an officer's club in Caracas under the control of the Venezuelan military.
At the officer’s club, the Lobster Air pilot met Martinez, another Venezuelan citizen named Charlie Chacon, who financed Lobster Air, and Rafael Ceruelos, who acted as an intermediary for the deal. Ceruelos eventually spent 15 months in US Federal prison for his involvement in the Lobster Air deal.
The airstrip where the arms were delivered is located south of Cucuta, capital of the Colombian department of Norte de Santander. The Colombian guerrilla groups FARC and ELN, as well as the paramilitary groups, all have active operations in this department.
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Jake Bergman is an associate reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting. Gerardo Reyes is a staff writer at El Nuevo Herald.