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Ariel Gandulla pleads guilty to kidnapping, will testify against Alexis Vila in murder trial

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Alexi Vila is accused of murdering Camilo Salazar in 2011 on behalf of a Miami supermarket owner.

Ariel Gandulla, a former MMA fighter known as “The Panther,” pleaded guilty to the kidnapping of a Coconut Grove man who was found tortured and murdered. Miami Herald / YouTube

According to the Miami Herald MMA fighter Ariel Gandulla, 51, pled guilty to the 2011 kidnapping of Camilo Salazar in a Miami court last week and received a 36-month sentence. Gandulla’s plea and sentence are part of a deal that is contingent on Gandulla testifying against individuals charged with Salazar’s murder.

Gandulla was originally charged with second-degree murder in this case, alongside fellow fighter Alexis Vila-Perdomo (a former Bellator tournament finalist and Olympic wrestler), boxing coach and promoter Roberto Isaac, and supermarket magnate Manuel Marin.

When those charges came down, in April 2018, prosecutors in Miami-Dade county claimed Marin, who owns the Presidente line of grocery stores, hired Gandulla, Vila-Perdomo and Isaac to kidnap and kill Salazar, whom he believed was having an affair with his wife.

Salazar’s body was discovered on a dirt road by the Everglades. He had been badly beaten, his throat was slit and his genitals were lit on fire. Authorities used cell phone records, and fingerprints on Salazar’s car, to piece together their version of events.

Vila-Perdomo, who once served a prison term for driving his car into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and Isaac were arrested early last year. Marin was arrested in Spain, where he had been living since Salazar’s death. Gandulla was living in Vancouver, B.C., Canada when he was charged with homicide, but it was unclear if he would ever be brought to trial in the United States.

Gandulla and Vila-Perdomo are both Cuban exiles. Gandulla never received U.S. citizenship before moving to Canada in 2011. In Canada he sought permanent residency status, but that seemed unlikely given Gandulla reportedly had charges of battery on law enforcement and cocaine possession on his record. Court documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun stated that the court was also aware of allegations that Gandulla was once involved with the Latin Kings street gang. Gandulla moved to Canada before he could be tried for those battery and drug charges.

The United States Department of Homeland Security were resistant to the idea of having Gandulla arrested and extradited to Florida to face trial for the murder of Salazar because they feared what may happen if they failed to convict him. Because of the United States’ strained political relationship with Cuba, U.S. authorities believed they would be unsuccessful if they tried to deport Gandulla back to his homeland. This meant it was possible that Gandulla could become free to settle, or possibly seek asylum, in the United States.

Gandulla’s state of diplomatic limbo ended after state prosecutors, Miami-Dade homicide investigators and a court-appointed defense attorney traveled to Vancouver to meet with Gandulla to figure out a deal. It’s unclear what will happen to Gandulla after he serves his prison sentence and whether he will remain in Florida to face other criminal charges.

Gandulla began his MMA career in 2005. In 2007 he appeared twice for the WEC promotion. Days after Salazar’s body was discovered on June 1st, 2011, Gandulla fought on the Florida regional circuit. He fought one more time in Florida, before moving to Canada. Gandulla fought three times in Canada. His last fight was in 2015.