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2 Colombians Arrested in Plot to Buy Missiles : Drug war: FBI says the suspects sought U.S. Stinger weapons to shoot down their government’s helicopters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The FBI announced the arrest Monday of two Colombians, including one linked to Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar, on charges of conspiring to purchase stolen U.S. Stinger missiles to shoot down Colombian government helicopters being used in the drug war.

The two allegedly offered to pay more than $1 million for the shoulder-fired weapons, which have proved highly effective in guerrilla conflicts overseas. They were snared by a sting operation that grew out of a narcotics investigation by the sheriff’s office in Polk County, Fla.

Agents simultaneously arrested Luis Fernando Arcila-Giraldo, 28, in Miami on Saturday, and Alfredo Antonio Ramos-Tinoco, 47, in Tampa. Ramos-Tinoco told authorities that Arcila-Giraldo was a close associate of Escobar, officials said.

In a series of meetings last month with undercover agents, the two Colombians offered to pay for the Stingers and automatic rifles with U.S. cash in bills of small denominations obtained through cocaine sales, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Tampa by FBI agent Charles A. Salemme.

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Ramos-Tinoco, operating under the alias of Alfredo Tenaka, told an undercover agent that he had recently smuggled thousands of pounds of marijuana into the United States and that he was waiting to follow that with several hundred pounds of cocaine, Salemme said.

The undercover agents advised Ramos-Tinoco that the Stingers had been stolen from the U.S. government. He said he understood and agreed to move them as soon as he received them, the affidavit said.

Ramos-Tinoco “further advised that documentation for the rifles and missiles would not be a problem, because he had government officials paid off in Colombia,” Salemme said.

Both suspects were charged with conspiring to receive stolen U.S. government property and to export arms without a license, as well as with possessing marijuana and cocaine with intent to distribute. They were arrested without incident--Ramos-Tinoco while he was shooting pool in a Tampa hotel bar and Arcila-Giraldo in the vicinity of the Miami International Airport. They were held without bond, the FBI said.

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If the arms exchange deal went well, Ramos-Tinoco told the undercover team, their “organization” would handle future transportation of drugs into the United States on behalf of Escobar’s group, the affidavit said. An FBI spokesman said that so far nothing had been developed linking Arcila-Giraldo to Escobar beyond Ramos-Tinoco’s statements.

Agents decided to arrest the men when they claimed that the $1 million they were expecting to arrive had been mistakenly sent to Los Angeles, and both appeared to be preparing to leave the country, according to a source close to the investigation.

Salemme said he had been advised by the Army that Stingers are valued at about $13,000 a missile, which indicated that the conspirators hoped to buy about 70 of the weapons.

The investigation is continuing, but any additional arrests probably would involve lower-level figures tied to the automatic rifle portion of the scheme, the FBI indicated.

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FBI officials discounted as “without substantiation” reports that the Colombians sought the missiles in a plot to assassinate Colombian President Virgilio Barco, who has spearheaded the drive against the cocaine cartels.

The FBI seized marijuana and several weapons from a Miami house that the two men had been observed visiting, an FBI spokesman said. The seized arms included a Baretta .380 semiautomatic, a Brazilian semiautomatic machine gun equipped with a homemade silencer, a Mac-10 machine gun, two .38-caliber pistols, an AR-15 assault rifle, a .22-caliber rifle and a Berringer handgun.

The arrest of the Colombians marked the second time this year that foreigners have been charged with trying to illicitly acquire Stingers for use overseas. Four Irish nationals were previously charged in Florida with trying to buy the missiles for the Irish Republican Army in an arrangement with undercover agents.

Meanwhile, the State Department said it had expressed concern to Israel about weapons shipped from that country turning up in February on a ranch owned by Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, a Medellin cartel leader who was slain last December in a shoot-out with Colombian police.

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A spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy here said the weapons--identified by others as 400 Galil rifles and 100 Uzi submachine guns--had been sent to the government of Antigua for use by its military, and that Israel has no knowledge of how the arms were diverted to Colombia. But Antigua contends that the ministry listed as the buyer of the weapons does not exist.

Circumstances of the shipment are being examined by the minority staff of the Senate Permanent Investigations subcommittee, under the direction of Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.). That panel previously has focused on Yair Klein, a retired Israeli lieutenant colonel, for his role in training armed groups in northern Colombia. Subcommittee investigators said that the groups were working for Gacha.

An Antiguan investigation has found evidence that Klein and another Israeli, Maurice R. Sarfati, played key roles in arranging for the arms to be shipped to Antigua, a two-island Caribbean state about 1,500 miles southeast of Miami.

STINGER MISSILE Shoulder-fired man portable antiaircraft missile used by U.S. military and allies; capable of hitting low-altitude, high-speed jet, propeller-driven and helicopter aircraft. Length: 5 ft. Weight: 34.75 lbs. Propellant: Solid Fuel Warhead: High-explosive Range: More than 4000 ft. Guidance: Passive infrared homing Crew: Can be transported and fired by one man Source: Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft

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