MIAMI (CN) – A complex and sprawling money-laundering operation has been brought down by a joint state and federal task force, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said on Thursday.
Twenty-two suspects – some of whom are known associates of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman – have been indicted, and three have been arrested in Miami, Rundle said.
Because the suspects used aliases like Tony Montana and the Octopus King – with one of the leaders calling himself Neymar after the Brazilian soccer player – the authorities dubbed the sting Operation Neymar.
The two-year investigation stretched over five continents, 17 nations and 14 U.S. states, and utilized informants, undercover agents, wiretaps, surveillance and a review of thousands of financial transactions. The case was a first-of-its-kind for state investigators, who didn’t mind patting themselves on the back.
“The organization we were dealing with was capable of laundering $1 million per month through businesses just in the Miami area,” Rundle said.
That organization is based Cali, Colombia, where it works for two drug cartels – the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia Cartel, a right-wing Colombian paramilitary group, and Sinaloa, the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world headed by the now-imprisoned El Chapo.
During the course of the investigation, authorities also identified 11 businesses in Miami that were being used as conduits in the black-market peso exchange, a highly complex scheme used to clean drug money. It’s so complicated, in fact, that at the press conference authorities had to explain it to reporters four times using visual aids.
Essentially, Mexican cartels buy drugs from Colombia, then transport the drugs to the United States and sell them for U.S. dollars. Those dollars are stored in warehouses until a broker can use them to purchase goods from a legitimate business like Hair and Accessories of Opa-locka.
The broker purchases those hair accessories on behalf of a buyer in Colombia who actually needs the hair accessories. The accessories are then shipped to Colombia, where the buyer there pays a local broker in Colombian pesos. That money then goes to the cartel.
“So money never has to leave either country,” Rundle said. “And the money becomes clean.”
Although the bust is not related to the Panama Papers, it comes at a time when money-laundering crimes face increased scrutiny. Miami has been called among the most problematic U.S. cities, and Rundle didn’t argue with that.
While the days of the Cocaine Cowboys are over, she said – referring to the 1980s when billions of dollars in cocaine poured into Miami – the area’s strong international economy has made it attractive as a funnel for drug-money laundering.
“We are surely the global hub,” she said.
John Tovon, a deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations, added that the operation in Miami will help law enforcement in “opening avenues to investigate other parallel market schemes” in other nations all over the world.
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