Federal agents allege a Kendall woman is at the center of a conspiracy involving the sale of false U.S. visas to Colombian drug dealers and guerrillas for $10,000 each.
Jay Weaver, herald.com (FL), Apr. 7
A former State Department employee has been charged with illegally selling hundreds of doctored visas from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, with some ending up in the hands of Colombian drug traffickers and ”terrorist” guerrillas.
Julieta Quiroz, 49, a mother of three from Kendall, is accused of pocketing at least $345,000 for approving about 180 visa requests to enter the United States, the majority for no-show applicants.
Federal law mandates that applicants be present in order to be considered and interviewed for a visa. The only applicants excluded are diplomats.
Her arrest comes at a time when the federal government is increasingly worried about terrorists illegally entering the country using fraudulent visas or passports.
The Justice Department has stepped up prosecutions of individuals trying to enter the United States with false paperwork.
Quiroz, agents say, “engaged in a complicated and extremely lucrative criminal conspiracy with others to unlawfully issue United States visas in exchange for financial compensation.”
The criminal affidavit didn’t say whether any drug traffickers or rebels used the visas to enter the United States.
The former consular associate is accused of conspiring with a Colombian couple who allegedly arranged for traffickers and guerrillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — FARC, a rebel group — to obtain visas through the mail for $10,000 each.
Quiroz, arrested Friday, was released Monday on bond. She is charged with conspiring to commit visa fraud, visa fraud and bribery of a public official — which carry a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison.
Her attorney, David O. Markus, said the charges don’t allege that Quiroz knew that potential cartel members and revolutionaries would receive the phony visas.
“At this point, Ms. Quiroz looks forward to contesting these charges and proceeding with this case,” Markus said.
Also arrested Friday was Olga Elena Ramirez, 47, of North Miami, who faces the same charges as Quiroz. She also bonded out. Her estranged husband, Juan Carlos Ramirez, is also wanted on the same criminal charges but is believed to be in Mexico.
Agents say the Ramirezes paid Quiroz for the visas. Juan Carlos Ramirez was the link to the Colombian cartels and laundered their money, investigators say.
Attorney Jose Quiñon, who represents Olga Ramirez, declined to comment.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Bardfeld and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency also declined to comment.
The next step following the arrest is likely to be an indictment, which is now under consideration by a federal grand jury in Miami.
The case was born after federal informants and a Colombian drug trafficker, convicted in the major cocaine investigation Operation Millennium, tipped off agents to the visa scheme.
According to one witness, Olga Ramirez, aka Olga Serna, and her husband were living in Mexico City when Olga Ramirez said that a woman named ”Julieta” got her visas at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City for $10,000 each, court records show.
Olga Ramirez told the witness that she obtained more than 400 visas through ”Julieta,” including 50 for members of the FARC, the criminal affidavit said.
Agents have only been able to account for 180 phony visas approved by Quiroz.
The informant said the well ran dry when ”Julieta” came under investigation and was moved to a U.S. Embassy in Central America.
Federal agents inspected State Department personnel records and linked ”Julieta” to Julieta Quiroz.
DENIED A VISA
One Colombian informant, Mario Astaiza, convicted in the Operation Millennium case, told an ICE agent that he was denied a visa under his true identity in Bogotá in 1999.
Two years later, Astaiza said Juan Carlos Ramirez provided him with false Mexican identity papers — a Mexican birth certificate and passport — for $2,000 and then arranged through his wife, Olga, to obtain a false visa from Quiroz at the U.S. Embassy for $10,000.
Astaiza told the agent that he was issued the visa under a fictitious name, which was later confirmed with State Department records.
James M. Burke, a State Department agent, showed one informant 180 photos of Colombian national visas approved by Quiroz from July 2000 to July 2002.
The informant identified 34 of the visa recipients as having ”an affiliation” with drug traffickers.
Burke soon checked Quiroz’s bank accounts at Washington Mutual and Navy Federal Credit Union and they showed more than $345,000 in ”unexplained income” from July 2000 to August 2003.
Bank records indicate that Quiroz and her husband, a State Department employee not charged in the case, should have earned $243,384.44 during that period.
However, their income was $588,649.11.