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Families Want Bank to|Pay for Cartel Murders

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) - Five U.S. families whose members were killed by Mexican drug cartels sued HSBC Bank on Tuesday, saying it financed the cartels' terrorism by laundering billions of dollars for them.

Lead plaintiff Mary Zapata sued London-based HSBC Holdings PLC and four subsidiaries in Federal Court on behalf of her late son Jamie. Jaime Zapata was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who was murdered by the Zetas outside of San Luis Potosí on Feb. 15, 2011. His partner, Victor Avila Jr., was wounded but survived. He and his family are co-plaintiffs.

The families want HSBC held liable for Anti-Terrorism Act violations. They call HSBC money laundering of cartels "in itself, an act of international terrorism" that provides "material support" for terrorist violence.

HSBC has admitted it laundered at least $881 million of cartel money, in a deal it struck with the federal government in 2012. The families say the figure is actually in the billions.

The Zetas are an offshoot of Mexican security forces, many of whom received U.S. training. They forced Jamie Zapata and Victor Avila off the road in broad daylight and managed to murder Zapata even though he was protected by his armored van.'

"Ignoring cries from the special agents that they were U.S. citizens and diplomats, the militants fired over 100 rounds from AK-47s and other military-grade weapons inside and at the vehicle, killing Special Agent Zapata and seriously wounding Special Agent Avila," the complaint states.

Lesley Enriquez Redelfs worked for the U.S. Embassy in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso. She and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, a jailer for the El Paso County Sheriff's Department, took their 7-month-old daughter to a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez, which was sponsored by the U.S. Consular Office on March 13, 2010.

Assassins with the Barrio Aztecas, enforcers for the Juárez Cartel, "were ordered to follow and assassinate any persons leaving the birthday party in white SUVs," the complaint states.

The Redelfs left the party in a white SUV with Texas plates. The assassins boxed them in a few blocks away and shot Lesley Redelfs twice in the head.

Her husband sped off toward the border, but the hitmen caught up to him near Ciudad Juárez City Hall and shot him. "Arthur's spinal cord was severed by one of the bullets and he died from massive bleeding. Their infant daughter was found screaming in the backseat," the complaint states.

Two months later, Rafael Morales Valencia and his family celebrated his wedding at a church in Ciudad Juárez. They walked from the church into a courtyard, where 16 members of the Sinaloa Cartel greeted them with assault rifles.

The Sinaloa Cartel is led by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, whom Mexican Marines re-re-captured in January, after his second escape from a high-security Mexican prison. Guzmán, often called the world's most powerful drug lord, is also known as the Lord of the Tunnels.

Guzmán's cartel, like all of them, pay off Mexico's Federal Judicial Police and other police agencies, the Mexican Army and politicians. The Federal Judicial Police barricaded a road to the church for the cartel.

The assassins forced Morales' wedding party and guests to the ground, and abducted him, his uncle and his brother, according to the complaint.


"The corrupt police officers then locked the gate to the church courtyard, trapping the horrified congregation inside. After transporting the three men to a 'safe house,' the Sinaloa Cartel tortured them and then wrapped duct tape around their heads and faces, killing them by asphyxiation," the complaint states.

The 106-page complaint focuses on HSBC's dealings in Mexico with the Juárez, Sinaloa and Los Zetas Cartels.

The families say the cartels bribed employees of HSBC's Mexican subsidiary for years before the murders, and that bankers routinely deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, at a time, from cartel members with no legitimate source of income.

"The cash was bundled in quantities of $50,000 USD or more and placed in packages specifically designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows," the complaint states.

The families say HSBC also took deposits from casas de cambio, currency-exchange houses, which accept large cash deposits from drug cartels and wire the money to accounts in and outside of Mexico.

Despite warnings from the State Department since 2000 about money laundering in Mexico, HSBC's U.S. subsidiary rated the country as a "'standard' risk," the families say. This rating allowed "at least $670 billion in wire transfers from HSBC Mexico" to pass without scrutiny into the company's U.S. banks, according to the complaint.

Weaved into the lawsuit's descriptions of cartel murders are some jaw-dropping statistics.

"Since 2006, the drug cartels have claimed over an estimated 100,000 lives, including many Americans. Additionally, tens of thousands of people have disappeared," it states.

"From January 2008 through March 2010, there were over 6,000 casualties in Ciudad Juárez alone, more than the U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan combined."

The cartels silence Mexico's mainstream and social media, and control its politicians and police through bribes, murders and fear, fueled by a macabre game of one-upmanship as to who can carry out the most brutal murders, the families say.

Accounts of the killings are similar to executions done by Islamic State terrorists.

"In September 2006, cartel members in Michoacán rolled five severed heads onto a crowded night club dance floor. In another instance, after brutally beheading a man on video, members of the Sinaloa Cartel excised the victim's face and stitched it to a soccer ball," the complaint states.

Cartels often leave messages called narcomantas - narco blankets - on their victims' bodies. For instance, after torturing and murdering two young bloggers, cartel members hung their disemboweled corpses from a highway bridge in Nuevo León with a message: "This is going to happen to all those posting funny things on the internet."

The cartels will kill anyone, regardless of age. A May 2011 State Department report said the cartels killed at least 998 people younger than 18 between 2006 and 2010. Murders in Mexico are grossly under-reported, as many victims simply disappear, like the 43 college students murdered in Guerrero state in 2014, whose bodies have not been found, though the search for them turned up dozens of other bodies.

Half of the lengthy lawsuit describes the three cartels' origins, how they rose to power moving cocaine from Columbia to the United States and how they have ratcheted up their violence in recent years.

The other half describes how HSBC turned a blind eye to the billions of dollars in cartel money deposited at its Mexican banks, which the bank wired to cartel-held accounts maintained by its U.S. subsidiary.

After the Department of Justice investigation of HSBC, which began in 2012, the bank signed a deferred prosecution deal, admitting that from 2006 to 2010 it laundered "at least $881 million" in cartel drug money.

The families call the bank's $1.9 billion fine a mere slap on the wrist - just 14 percent of its reported profits from a single year, though the money laundering has gone on for decades.

"HSBC paid $1.9 billion in forfeiture and fines, which represented only a small fraction of its $13.5 billion in profits for fiscal year 2012," the complaint states. "However, not a single person associated with HSBC was indicted for his or her participation in the longstanding and egregious criminal conduct that occurred at HSBC."

The families seek damages for supporting and financing terrorism, in violation of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Their lead attorney is Richard Elias, with Elias, Gutzler & Spicer, of St. Louis.

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