Colombian National Pleads Guilty to Operating an International Fentanyl Trafficking Organization from a Canadian Prison

A Colombian fentanyl trafficker, who was scheduled to go to trial on Oct. 1, 2019, pleaded guilty earlier today to drug trafficking and money laundering charges as the leader and organizer of an international continuing criminal enterprise while incarcerated in Quebec, Canada.  The enterprise involved distributing fentanyl and other similar substances from Canada and China into the United States where some of those drugs resulted in 15 overdoses including 11, which caused serious bodily injuries, and four, which resulted in fatal overdoses.

Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Drew H. Wrigley for the District of North Dakota, along with U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams for the District of Oregon, made the announcement.

Daniel Vivas Ceron, 38, of Colombia, pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alice R. Senechal in Fargo, North Dakota, to continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and controlled substance analogues resulting in serious bodily injury and death and money laundering.  Vivas Ceron faces a statutory maximum sentence of life in prison. The date of sentencing has not been set.

At the plea hearing, Vivas Ceron admitted that between 2013 and 2017, Chinese sources of supply shipped several hundred pounds of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues to the United States and Canada.  Vivas Ceron and members of his conspiracy imported these opioids into the United States and distributed them to their customers around the country. Vivas Ceron ran his drug trafficking organization from a jail cell in Canada, and he concealed his identity to facilitate the conspiracy by using aliases, encrypted WICKR accounts, and numerous email addresses. Vivas Ceron and his co-conspirators’ distribution in Canada and the United States resulted in 15 overdoses in North Dakota, Oregon, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Rhode Island, including four fatal overdoses, one of which was Grand Forks resident 18-year-old Bailey Henke.

“From a Canadian jail cell, Daniel Vivas Ceron directed a deadly drug ring that fueled the opioid epidemic and took the lives of four Americans,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski.  “Today’s guilty plea brings some measure of justice for the victims and families that fell prey to Vivas Ceron’s dangerous organization and its tragic track record of spreading addiction and abuse.” 

“Ultimate justice can seem elusive in a case with such a wide swath of destruction.  The defendant and his co-conspirators built themselves an organization that made them into regional, national and international merchants of death, and today’s guilty plea is an important milestone in the quest for justice on behalf of those who died and those who were injured by the defendant’s ruinous quest for profits,” said U.S Attorney Wrigley.  “I want to personally commend the team of prosecutors and investigators who worked so ably across the nation and globe to make today’s guilty plea possible.  We will work assiduously to secure a sentence that reflects the light of justice on the far-reaching damage done to innumerable victims, families and communities,”

“Daniel Vivas Ceron’s heinous crimes have caused unthinkable pain and anguish for dozens of people in Oregon and far beyond, including four victims who lost their lives to fatal overdoses,” said U.S. Attorney Williams.  “At a time when our country desperately tries to free itself from the painful grip of the opioid crisis, criminals like Ceron and his more than 20 co-defendants are seeking to profit off addiction and death.  The tragic irony of crime is that while Ceron will continue to live out his life in prison or beyond, four of his victims will not.  The damage he caused is permanent.  We cannot forget that.”

“My heart goes out to the friends and families of those who lost their lives as a result of the greed and selfishness of all of the individuals involved in this case,” said Special Agent in Charge Brad Bench of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Seattle, Washington.  “The amount of cooperation between HSI and our state, federal, and international partners was invaluable to halting the deadly actions of this complex drug organization. While we will never know how many lives are saved because of our efforts, we hope we are able to provide just a small bit of peace to the families whose lives are forever changed as a result of the offender’s careless actions.” 

“The Portland Police Bureau is fully committed to working with our local, state and federal partners to combat the illegal distribution and trafficking of deadly opioids in our communities,” said Commander Art Nakamura of the Portland Police Bureau Tactical Operations – Drugs and Vice in Portland, Oregon.  “The Police Bureau, along with our partners, strive to keep our community members safe from these drug traffickers who sell these deadly drugs in our neighborhoods throughout our country.  With this partnership, we will hold those responsible for distributing these deadly drugs accountable.”

Following his deportation from Canada, Vivas Ceron was taken into custody at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama on July 17, 2015, pursuant to an arrest warrant in connection with an indictment filed in the District of North Dakota.  After Vivas Ceron’s arrest in July 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, together worked diligently to extradite Vivas Ceron.  On Jan. 25, 2017, Vivas Ceron was extradited to the United States from Panama after Panamanian authorities authorized the extradition.

This case is part of “Operation Denial,” an Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) investigation into the international trafficking of fentanyl and other lethal drugs, and was significantly aided by the national and international coordination led by the multi-agency Special Operations Division (SOD) near Washington, DC, as part of “Operation Deadly Merchant.”  The investigation started in North Dakota on Jan. 3, 2015, with the overdose death in Grand Forks, North Dakota, of Bailey Henke.

Additional defendants charged in federal court in this investigation include:

District of North Dakota

  • Jian Zhang, aka Hong Kong Zaron, 40, of China; Jason Joey Berry, aka Daniel Desnoyers, 36, of Quebec, Canada; Xuan Cahn Nguyen, aka Jackie and Jackie Chan 39, of Quebec Canada; Marie Um, aka Angry Bird, 38, of Quebec, Canada; Vannek Um, 41, of Quebec, Canada; and Linda Van, 27, of Quebec, Canada were charged by a superseding indictment returned on Jan. 18, 2018, with drug trafficking conspiracy.  Also charged with international money launder conspiracy were Na Chu, 38; Yeyou Chu, 37; Cuiying Liu, 63; and Keping Zhang, 63, all Chinese nationals;
     
  • In a separate indictment returned on March 22, 2018, Steven Barros Pinto, aka Yeaboy, 38, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute controlled substances and controlled substance analogues resulting in serious bodily injury and death, conspiracy to import controlled substances and controlled substance analogues into the United States resulting in serious bodily injury and death and continuing criminal enterprise. On Nov. 28, 2018, a superseding indictment was filed adding the charges of obstruction of justice and money laundering conspiracy;
     
  • Brandon Corde Hubbard, 44, of Portland, Oregon, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death, distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death and money laundering conspiracy.  He was sentenced on July 13, 2016, to serve life in federal prison;
     
  • Ryan Jon Jensen, 24, of Grand Forks, North Dakota, pleaded guilty on Feb. 27, 2015, to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death, one count of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death, two counts of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in serious bodily injury and money laundering conspiracy.  He was sentenced on Feb. 1, 2016, to serve 240 months in federal prison;
     
  • Joshua Tyler Fulp, 24, of Grand Forks, pleaded guilty on June 23, 2015, to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death.  He was sentenced to serve 144 months in federal prison;
     
  • Kain Daniel Schwandt, 23, of Grand Forks, pleaded guilty on July 24, 2015, to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.  He was sentenced on Jan. 25, 2016, to serve 42 months in federal prison;
     
  • David Todd Noye Jr., 18, of Grand Forks, pleaded guilty on May 4, 2015, to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.  He was sentenced on Jan. 25, 2016, to serve 39 months in federal prison;
     
  • Jameson Robert Sele, 24, of Grand Forks, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.  He was sentenced on July 27, 2015, to serve 36 months in federal prison;
     
  • Ronnie Lee Helms, 34, of Acworth, Georgia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance and controlled substance analogue resulting in serious bodily injury and death.  His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 1, 2019;
     
  • Braden James Foley, 32, of Olympia, Washington, pleaded guilty on Aug. 11, 2016, to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of controlled substances.  He was sentenced to serve 30 months in federal prison on Nov. 21, 2016;
     
  • Anthony Santos Gomes, 34, originally of Rhode Island and Davie, Florida, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute controlled substances and controlled substance analogues resulting in serious bodily injury and death and money laundering conspiracy.  In addition to pleading guilty, Gomes agreed to forfeit a residence located in Davie, Florida; $162,836.00 in cash; 2007 Maserati Quattroporte; 2017 Polaris Sportsman XP ATV; and assorted jewelry valued at $64,725.00.  His sentencing has been set for Nov. 15, 2019;
     
  • Amanda Schneider, 29, of Port S. Lucie, Florida, pleaded guilty on Sept. 17, 2018, to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of controlled substances. She was sentenced on Jan. 17, 2019, to serve 15 months in federal prison;
     
  • Keveen Nobre, 29, of Providence, Rhode Island, pleaded guilty on Oct. 10, 2018, to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of controlled substances.  He was sentenced on April 17, 2019, to serve 30 months in federal prison;
     
  • Robinson Gomez, 36, of Charlotte, North Carolina, pleaded guilty on Jan. 10, 2019, to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of controlled substances.  He was sentenced on April 17, 2019, to serve 180 months in federal prison;
     
  • David Campbell, 58, of Plantation, Florida, pleaded guilty on Jan. 10, 2019, to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of controlled substances.  He was sentenced on April 17, 2019, to serve 120 months in federal prison;
  • Louis Bell, 31, of Port St. Lucie, Florida, pleaded guilty on Nov. 8, 2018, to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of controlled substances.  He was sentenced on April 18, 2019, to serve 201 months in federal prison;
     
  • Elizabeth Ton, 28, of Davie, Florida, pleaded guilty on June 18, 2018, to money laundering conspiracy.  She was sentenced on March 8, 2019, to serve 41 months in federal prison; and
     
  • Danny Gamboa, 22, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, pleaded guilty on Jan. 10, 2019, to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of controlled substances. He was sentenced on April 17, 2019, to serve 25 months in federal prison.

District of Oregon

  • Channing Lacey, 32, of Portland, Oregon, pleaded guilty on March 28, 2017, to one count of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in serious bodily injury to three individuals and one count of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death.  She was sentenced on Aug. 28, 2017, to serve 135 months in federal prison;
     
  • Steven Fairbanks Locke, 43, of Portland, pleaded guilty on June 14, 2017, to use of a communication facility to facilitate a drug offense.  His sentencing is set for Nov.18, 2019; and
     
  • Carissa Marie Laprall, 27, of Portland, pleaded guilty on March 28, 2017, to three counts of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in serious bodily injury.  Her sentencing is set for Dec. 2, 2019.

This case is being investigated by HSI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Portland Oregon Police Bureau – Drugs and Vice Division, Portland HIDTA Interdiction Task Force, Oregon State Police and the Grand Forks Police Department.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher C. Myers is prosecuting the cases in North Dakota; Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Kerin is prosecuting the cases in the District of Oregon and assisting as a Special Assistant U.S Attorney in North Dakota.  Acting Assistant Deputy Chief Adrienne Rose and Trial Attorney Kaitlin Sahni are prosecuting the case from the Criminal Division’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section of the Justice Department.

Based upon the change of plea, Judge Senechal will issue a report and recommendation to Federal District Court Judge John P. Bailey of the Northern District of West Virginia, to formally accept Vivas Ceron’s guilty plea.

An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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Author: July 12, 2019

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