The final defendant in a case against a drug trafficking ring was sentenced in a Florida court to 80 months in prison for ordering fentanyl and other controlled substances from darkweb marketplaces and selling them throughout Florida.
Johan Stephen Paniagua, 26, played the primary role in a drug trafficking operation that operated out of Miami-Dade county and Osceola county. According to court documents, Paniagua and three co-conspirators distributed massive quantities of fentanyl, pentylone, n-ethylpentylone, and similar controlled substance analogues to drug dealers in south Florida. In turn, those drug dealers distributed the drugs to hundreds of residents in the two counties where Paniagua operated his drug trafficking organization.
According to the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Ariana Fajardo Orshan, United States District Judge Robert N. Scola sentenced the 26-year-old to 80 months in prison after Paniagua had pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to import a controlled substance analogue. The United States Attorney, in an earlier announcement, said that Paniagua was the last of the four conspirators to enter a guilty plea. Paniagua pleaded guilty in April 2018.
One co-conspirator, Saul Rivera, 33, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance analogue in January 2018. Ernest Lee Warren, 40, pleaded guilty to the same charge in January as well. The final co-conspirator, Jacqueline Santiago, 30, pleaded guilty to mail theft by a postal employee in December 2017. Judge Scola sentenced Rivera to 48 months in prison; Warren to 24 months in prison; and Santiago to probation.
As the varying prison sentences indicate, all four men had very different roles in the south Florida drug trafficking operation. Paniagua, the primary defendant, ordered drugs from different suppliers on darkweb marketplaces. He knew the drugs his clients wanted to sell to their own clients. He managed bulk transactions and made deals with darkweb vendors. In order to ensure the delivery of the drug packages in a way that helped keep his perceived involvement minimal if one of his packages ever got seized or intercepted at a United States Postal Service sorting facility.
To keep the flow of narcotics steady, Paniagua employed Rivera, a United States Postal Service employee, to divert Paniagua’s drug packages from the mail stream. Rivera would hand the packages off to either Paniagua, one of Paniagua’s unindicted co-conspirators who solely delivered packages of drugs to Paniagua, or Warren. Warren, court documents revealed, was Paniagua’s so-called “drug mule.” Warren would receive packages from Rivera and deliver them to Paniagua by hand. After Paniagua had prepared the controlled substances for distribution, Warren would deliver the packages to drug dealers in Miami-Dade county. Several dealers in Osceola county also purchased the drugs Paniagua had purchased on the darkweb.
Santiago received a significantly less strict punishment for playing a much less significant role in the operation. The 30-year-old also worked as an United States Postal Service employee and helped Paniagua the same way Rivera had been helping Paniagua. However, Paniagua only required Santiago’s services when Rivera could not make it to work or was otherwise unable to divert Paniagua’s drug packages.
“The Postal Inspection Service will continue to work with our partners, to stop the flow of dangerous drugs onto the streets of our community,” said Postal Inspector in Charge of the USPIS Miami Division, Antonio J. Gomez. “Enforcing the laws that defend the nation’s mail system from illegal use, are at the core of our mission.”
The investigation into the organization took over a year, according to United States Attorney Orshan. In addition to the involvement of the United States Postal Inspection Service, the investigation involved the United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General. Just as Postal Inspectors treat illegal use of the mail system seriously, the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General handles Postal Service employee corruption as swiftly as possible. Homeland Security Investigations and Customs and Border Protection also investigated Paniagua’s operation. The federal agencies worked on the case alongside several state law enforcement agencies as a part of the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Task Force.
During an announcement about the sentencing, United States Attorney Orshan commended every law enforcement agency involved in the investigation as well as those who prosecuted the case.