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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Colombian butcher accused of working with members of the Venezuelan military to facilitate shipments of massive loads of cocaine from South America to the United States was sentenced on Friday to five years in a U.S. prison.
Gersain Viafara-Mina, 50, wept as U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter in Manhattan imposed the maximum sentence he faced after pleading guilty in August to participating in a conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States.
His lawyers called Viafara-Mina a decent man who only participated in the drug scheme to support his family and escape guerrilla-controlled territory. But Carter cited the size of the drug-trafficking operation in imposing sentence.
"I am concerned about the scope of criminal conduct that he engaged in," Carter said.
The sentencing came amid a series of U.S. cases and probes linking individuals tied to the Venezuelan government to drug trafficking.
The U.S. State Department has called Venezuela a preferred route to traffic cocaine from South America onward due to, among other things, a porous border with Colombia and a "permissive and corrupt environment."
According to his lawyers, in 2008, Viafara-Mina was asked to move to Venezuela by a drug trafficker he met through the Colombian rebel group FARC, which U.S. authorities have accused of being significantly involved in the drug trade.
Once there, Viafara-Mina began a new butcher business and started a family while also maintaining airfields the drug trafficker used, his lawyers said in court papers.
Prosecutors said that for at least five years, Viafara-Mina facilitated the dispatch of cocaine shipments from clandestine airstrips by coordinating with other drug traffickers, politicians and members of the Venezuelan military.
At a Venezuelan runway in 2010, FARC members provided security as Viafara-Mina worked with others to send more than 1,650 pounds (750 kg) of cocaine to Honduras for transshipment to the United States, prosecutors said.
In 2011, Viafara-Mina spoke about securing the release from the Venezuelan military of a U.S.-registered aircraft seized in an anti-narcotics operation, the prosecutors added.
In 2015, Viafara-Mina told a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant he had Venezuelan military associates who could provide transponder codes that would allow drug planes to operate in Venezuelan airspace, according to the prosecutors.
Viafara-Mina is expected to receive credit for the time he has already spent in custody since his arrest in Colombia in February 2015. In court on Friday, he apologised, saying he was only trying to support himself and his family.
"I did that in order to eat," he said.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Tom Brown