FARGO — Daniel Vivas Ceron sat quietly Friday, July 12, in a Fargo federal courtroom, wearing an orange jail uniform and chains as prosecutors detailed how he and co-conspirators shipped several hundred pounds of fentanyl and similar drugs from China to the U.S.
The 38-year-old Colombian national listened to an overview of evidence that connected him to at least 15 overdoses, four of which were fatal, including the death of Bailey Henke of Grand Forks. Vivas then pleaded guilty to three of the six charges that said he helped lead an international drug ring from a Canadian prison.
Prosecutors said he and others oversaw dozens of co-defendants who distributed millions of fentanyl pills across the U.S. from 2013 through 2017.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley for the North Dakota District said in a statement after the hourlong hearing.
Wrigley, attorneys and law enforcement officers were among dozens who sat in the courtroom, listening to a judge read the details of Vivas’ plea agreement. Three of the six charges will be dismissed, but he will face a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole.
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Vivas was one of more than 30 defendants indicted on federal charges related to an international drug ring that was discovered after Henke’s death in January 2015. His fentanyl overdose launched a multi-jurisdictional investigation called “Operation Denial.”
It ultimately led federal agents to Panama, where Vivas was arrested in July 2015 after serving roughly 12 years in Drummond Institution, a medium-security prison near Montreal, on drug charges.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers, who as acting U.S. attorney announced the indictment against Vivas in 2016, described how in 2013 Vivas met and became friends with Jason Joey Berry, 36, in Drummond. Berry taught Vivas about opioids and smuggled cellphones into the prison, Myers said.
The two ran drug operations from prison before Berry was taken to a segregated part of the facility, suspected of causing overdoses there, Myers said.
Vivas continued to run the operation from behind bars, using the dark web and aliases to work with others and to conceal their efforts, according to court documents.
After being deported from Canada in 2015, he was kept in a Panama prison until he was extradited in January 2017 to the U.S. He has remained in the Cass County Jail since then.
Vivas challenged his arrest and sought to have his confession omitted from trial, but a magistrate denied those motions. It’s unclear whether that played a role in his decision to change his plea to guilty. His attorney, Charles Stock, declined to comment on why Vivas signed the plea agreement. Sentencing will be set at a future date.
Nineteen defendants tied to the drug ring have pleaded guilty in federal court, 15 of which are serving prison sentences. All but three defendants were prosecuted in North Dakota.
One defendant who hasn't pleaded guilty is Steven Barros Pinto, a 38-year-old defendant who allegedly acted as an “organizer” in distributing fentanyl pills across the U.S. for the drug operation. He's slated to go to trial Oct. 1.
Ten additional defendants, including Berry and Chinese nationals, were indicted in January 2018 in connection with Operation Denial.