MIAMI, Fla. - A major crime operation is busted right here in Florida. What one group was selling inside a Miami warehouse could have threatened the nation's safety, had it not been intercepted by Homeland Security.
Four Colombian men were indicted by a Federal Grand jury in Miami for illegally trying to export 22 F-5 jet fighter engines to Iran. While it's unusual to see these kinds of items offered for sale online - which is where investigators found them - we've learned it's not unusual for buyers around to world to try to supply our U.S. technology to other governments and even terrorists.
It was an online ad that caught the attention of Homeland Security Investigations. "That is not something we normally see," Anthony Mangione, Special Agent in Charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami.
For sale: J-85-CAN-15 aircraft engines used primarily in F-5 fighter jets. F-5s are currently used in the two countries of Venezuela and Iran. The only place you can get these parts, Mangione said, is the black market. According to the complaint affidavit, Iran produces an aircraft named “Saegeh,” which is compatible with the F-5 fighter engines.
"We are seeing more and more individuals trying to get stuff to Iran," Mangione said.
On January 20th, an undercover agent responded to the ad, posing as a broker. "We met in an undercover capacity, made an offer for the engines, and that offer was then accepted," Mangione said.
The undercover agent said Iranian buyers were willing to purchase the 22 engines for $320,000.
Arrangements were made to ship them from Miami to Panama to Iran, a violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act banning exports to Iran.
"There is an entire industry built upon people roaming the world, literally, with sheets of information, with wish lists of governments and people who want our technology," Mangione said. "It's the best in the world and people want to do one of two things. They either want it or they want to do what we call retrofit it - figure out how it works and then try to organize defenses against it."
March 8th, Felipe Echeverry, Diego Echeverri, Amparo Echeverri Valdes, and Carlos Alfredo Pantoja-Coral were charged in the conspiracy, and the 22 engines were seized.
"People who sell these parts, people who buy these types of parts, they don't care who buys it," Mangione said. "It was a good thing it was undercover agents who bought them as opposed to representatives of the government of Iran or somebody else for that matter."
Right now, investigators are trying to figure out where these engines came from. They've had similar cases of individuals trying to get Generation 3 night vision goggles over to the Iranian army. The 4 men involved face 5 different charges, each charge carrying penalties of 5 to 20 years in prison if they're convicted.