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U.S. Agents Announce Thousands Of Weapons Seized In 'Operation Patagonia Express'

U.S. federal agents say an international operation seized 5,300 firearms and components from a transnational criminal organization.
ICE Homeland Security Investigations
U.S. federal agents say an international operation seized 5,300 firearms and components from a transnational criminal organization.

Federal officials in South Florida said Friday that a massive international operation in three countries arrested 25 people and seized thousands of weapons and their components.

Those arrested in the bust, dubbed Operation Patagonia Express, include a married couple in their 60s who lived in Broward County, Fla. John James Peterson and Brunella Zuppone have been charged with conspiracy to violate and attempted violations of U.S. weapons laws.

"With this partnership, we prevented the illicit sale and proliferation of a significant cache of weapons by keeping them out of the hands of criminals and transnational criminal organizations operating in Argentina and Brazil," said Matthew Albence, deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the Miami Herald.

In total, authorities in the U.S., Argentina and Brazil have seized "5,300 firearms and components, 167 explosives/ordinances and 15 silencers from the transnational criminal organization," according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On Wednesday, "Operation Patagonia Express culminated in the execution of 53 search warrants in an internationally combined effort to dismantle this criminal organization," Anthony Salisbury, the special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, said at a news conference.

He added that the bust "resulted in the largest weapons seizure in Argentine history." Many of the parts and components seized by authorities are for AR-15 rifles, according to federal prosecutors.

"We have to work together, just by sharing information, by working as a team, in order to succeed and dismantle those kinds of organizations," Commandant Martin Myslicki of the Argentine National Gendarmerie told reporters, according to WPLG Local 10 News.

The complaint against Peterson and Zuppone lays out how federal authorities discovered the alleged massive weapons-trafficking scheme.

In Oct. 2018, the couple allegedly mailed a package to Argentina from the U.S. Postal Service office in Bradenton, Fla. But it was placed on hold and later searched, and authorities discovered dozens of AR-15 parts.

Authorities used video surveillance to identify the suspects. The first package they found was labeled as "Second Hand Sport Goods"; during the investigation, they discovered that the pair had allegedly mailed 45 other packages to Argentina since Feb. 2016. Those were labeled "auto parts, bicycle spare parts, optic scopes, and antique revolver, among others," according to the complaint.

In one shipment headed to Argentina, according to the court documents, U.S. and Argentine officials seized "approximately 189 long arms, 156 handguns, one mortar round, one hand grenade, over 30,000 rounds of assorted caliber ammunition, five vehicles, $110,000."

It wasn't clear if Peterson has a lawyer representing him, and a lawyer for Zuppone declined to comment.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.