Accused ringleader tied to ND drug death says agents forced his confession in Panama airport
FARGO — After serving 12 years in a Canadian prison, Daniel Vivas Ceron thought he was going home to Colombia.
He arranged for his mother to meet him in the country’s capital of Bogota. He boarded a commercial flight July 17, 2015, from Montreal.
As the plane started to move from the gate, he asked a Canadian federal agent who was escorting him when they would land in Bogota — he said he had been told multiple times before takeoff that he was on a direct flight to Colombia.
“We are not taking you to Bogota,” one agent said, Vivas recalled. “You’re going to Panama.”
Vivas didn’t know it at the time, but that’s where U.S. federal agents were waiting for him, ready to accuse him of leading an international fentanyl operation that shipped the potent opioid from China into the U.S. Court documents link him to two overdose deaths, including Bailey Henke, an 18-year-old Grand Forks man who died after ingesting fentanyl in January 2015.
Four years later, 38-year-old Vivas is sitting in the Cass County Jail, waiting for a trial during which federal prosecutors will argue he operated the drug ring from inside Drummond Institution, a medium-security prison near Montreal.
More than 30 defendants have been charged in the case, and about a dozen have been ordered to spend time behind bars. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fargo has received honors for its prosecution of the international drug operation.
Prosecutors have laid out allegations of how undercover agents allegedly bought fentanyl multiple times from Vivas using electronic means, how he used the dark web to communicate with co-conspirators and how he ordered others to manufacture and ship tens of thousands of fentanyl pills across the country. Court documents also say he admitted to his alleged part in the dealings while talking to U.S. federal agents in Panama.
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But Vivas claimed in a handwritten 231-page sworn statement filed in federal court that the U.S. agents coerced him into confessing to the allegations. He told The Forum he was asked to sign “a blank check” and admit to anything agents accused him of. Otherwise, they would hurt his mother, his then-girlfriend and others connected to him, according to his account.
“(This) was a hostage-taking situation,” Vivas wrote in the statement attached to a motion seeking to dismiss the case. “I was to trade my life and freedom for (the) safety and life of my family.”
Prosecutors have denied that agents made threats, but Vivas has filed a motion to get his confession thrown out of court.
“It became a battle of what is right,” he told The Forum during an interview at Cass County Jail. “I have something to fight for.”
If Vivas can prove agents coerced him, it’s possible a judge could exclude the confession from evidence, said David Schultz, a University of Minnesota political science professor who has taught classes on criminal procedure.
“The argument is going to be this is not a voluntary, willing and knowing waiver of one’s rights, and therefore, the confession violates the Fifth Amendment,” Schultz said.
'My name is Daniel Vivas Ceron'
Vivas’ sworn statement reads more like a journal of his life and how he came to be in Fargo. The document begins with the line, “My name is Daniel Vivas Ceron.”
His father, who grew up in poverty, got involved in cocaine trafficking, faced assassination attempts and was addicted to drugs. Vivas’ mother took him and his brother away to Canada in 1988 to keep the father from beating and verbally assaulting them.
“Mom took her courage in (her) hands and took us away to protect us,” Vivas wrote.
His father killed himself, and his brother, who was deported in 1997 to Colombia after getting involved with a gang, died in a drive-by shooting in 1999 at age 23.
Vivas said he tried to be a good kid. He practiced martial arts, worked a minimum-wage job and tried to join the Canadian Army. But after his brother died, he became depressed and eventually got involved in “violence, drug consumption and drug dealing, at a small scale.”
He eventually was sent to prison in Canada on drug-smuggling charges and in connection with a drive-by shooting.
“I understand I haven’t always been walking the right path,” he told The Forum. “I’ve done a lot of mistakes.”
'I'm guilty of whatever you say'
Canadian officials told Vivas several times he was going to Colombia. He smuggled drugs in Panama, so he would have fought going there if he knew that was his destination, he said.
When Canadian agents told him he was going to Panama while the plane was leaving the airport, he stayed calm because he was surrounded by passengers. “If you react in a plane, it is the worst place to react,” he said.
Several hours later, he was sitting in a room at the Panama Airport, being asked to sign a confession, he said.
“They look like they are going to beat me up,” he said of Panama officers with batons. “I feel like they are trying to intimidate me.”
The Vivas sitting before this Forum reporter had lost about 65 pounds since he left Canada, according to his account. The man with shoulder-length curly hair, a goatee and mustache looked considerably thinner than his mugshot, which made him look like a clean-cut, stout bodybuilder with short hair.
It takes a lot to scare Vivas, he said, noting that he's stubborn and can handle a beating. But he said he cried when a U.S. agent allegedly told him they had people standing by his mother and then-girlfriend.
“I studied body language,” he said. “I’m looking at this guy’s body language. He doesn’t look like he is lying.”
Vivas showed The Forum photos of his mother doing mission work. He started to tear up when talking about how scared he was for his mother being threatened.
The alleged threat to hurt his family was enough for him to give up his rights and confess, he said.
“My mom has gone through hell in her life,” he said. “I’m not going to let them hurt her. So when he showed me the video, I said, ‘All right. I’m guilty of whatever you say. Just don’t hurt my family.’”
Is a threat coercion?
A foreign defendant has the same rights as a U.S. citizen if they are charged in a court based in the U.S., Schultz said. Court rulings have sided with investigators who have lied to suspects to gain confessions, but it’s debatable whether a confession would be allowed in court if it was obtained after the suspect was threatened, he said.
“That would probably be pretty coercive at that point,” Schultz said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota declined to answer questions for this story because it does not comment on pending cases, U.S. Attorney Christopher Myers said. Prosecutors said agents never threatened Vivas’ family or anyone connected to him, and agents informed Vivas of his Miranda rights before he confessed, making it voluntary, according to court documents.
There is no recording of the conversation between the U.S. federal agents and Vivas since the Panama government did not allow it, according to an affidavit filed by Myers.
“Interrogation tactics using psychological pressure, implied false promises, playing on a subject's emotions and using his respect for his family against him do not necessarily render a confession involuntary,” Myers said in court documents.
Vivas called what the agents allegedly did torture.
A spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration, a lead agency in the case, said the agency would not discuss its tactics or methods for interviewing suspects.
Facing a possible life sentence
Vivas spent more than a year in a Panama prison awaiting extradition to the U.S., which he fought. He arrived Jan. 25, 2017, in North Dakota, and the next day he appeared for the first time in federal court in Fargo.
Vivas’ former attorney, Brian Toay, told him Myers would seek a life sentence for Vivas if he spoke about Panama, according to the defendant’s statement. Again, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment, and a phone message left for Toay was not returned.
Myers filed notice Jan. 14, less than a month after Vivas submitted his narrative describing alleged threats in Panama, that the prosecution intended to seek a life sentence.
Vivas argued his rights under international treaties were violated in the way he was brought to the U.S. A judge ruled against his motion to dismiss his case after his current attorney, Charles Stock, argued he was brought to the U.S. without due process. A hearing regarding his motion to suppress his statements made in Panama is set for Tuesday, April 16, and he's slated to go to trial Oct. 1.
“Generally, I will say that the government agent’s credibility prevails,” Schultz said, if there is no evidence to back up a defendant’s claims.
There are federal documents that indicate Vivas’ mother and then-girlfriend were with agents the day of his interrogation, though he disputes the timeline indicating agents talked with his mother after his interview.
Stock declined to comment for this story.
Vivas said he’s innocent until proven guilty, and if the U.S. can prove a person committed a crime, they should face consequences. But he doesn’t want to go further until a judge rules on whether hostages were taken and whether the alleged threats render his confession inadmissible.
He said he can’t take a plea deal at this point, no matter what's offered. He asked readers to put themselves in his position — how would they feel if their family was threatened.
Vivas said agents went too far to get him.
“Even if I was who they say I was and even if they wanted me that bad, the question is, are you willing to surrender your constitutional rights and the rights of your kids and your descendants just to get one guy in prison?” he asked.