Once partners in a gold-fueled money-laundering racket between Latin America and Miami, Samer Barrage and Juan Granda stood as ashamed and apologetic defendants on Friday while a federal judge sent them to prison for their multibillion-dollar crime.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola gave Barrage nearly seven years and Granda six years in prison, granting them some credit for their assistance to federal prosecutors in the unfolding $3.6 billion money-laundering conspiracy case that has rattled the nation’s precious-metals industry.
The former gold dealers for now-defunct NTR Metals in Doral faced maximum terms of 10 years each under their plea agreements. But prosecutors asked the judge to shave off a portion of their punishment because of their cooperation in the ongoing probe and their repayment of some illicit profits from tons of gold imports over the past five years.
Both defendants, considered flight risks, have been in federal custody since their arrests last March and pleaded guilty in September. Under a settlement agreement, Barrage, who was NTR’s boss in Latin America and shared in the gold-smuggling profits, agreed to pay back $1.3 million — though that figure has been reduced to $850,000. Granda agreed to pay back $466,000 but has repaid only $9,000.
In weighing their sentences, Scola highlighted the “harm” that Barrage, 40, and Granda, 36, caused in carrying out their massive money-laundering conspiracy with a third convicted NTR gold trader, Renato Rodriguez, 43, who awaits sentencing at the end of January.
“This goes way beyond” money laundering, Scola said, as the judge listed the “deforestation” of the Amazonian rainforests in South America, the “poisoning” of workers and other “social ills” caused by illegal gold mining in Colombia and Peru — the latter of which Pope Francis visited on Friday to shine a spotlight on the environmental and human devastation.
The judge also pointed out that Barrage and Granda bought illegally mined gold from drug traffickers and criminal groups while bribing foreign government officials and falsifying paperwork to smuggle loads of the precious metal from South America to Miami.
Scola’s points were the focus of a Miami Herald series on gold smuggling and money laundering between Latin America and South Florida that was published online this week.
Both Barrage and Granda, whose families were among the throng attending the sentencing hearing in Miami, issued deep apologies.
“I’m deeply ashamed to be standing here in front of my family and friends,” Barrage told the judge. “There is absolutely no excuse for this. ... Remorse does not even begin to scratch the surface of how I feel.”
Granda echoed those same sentiments: “The only person I can blame is myself.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Francisco Maderal characterized the NTR duo’s scheme of buying illegally mined gold as “sprawling.”
“It’s a rampant problem and an important issue,” said Maderal, who is working on the case with prosecutor Tony Gonzalez, Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI. “These gentlemen were right in the middle of it all, but they are by no means the only people involved.”
Last week, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging four Peruvian men in the money-laundering conspiracy, including a longtime gold smuggler known by the alias Peter Ferrari. They still must be extradited from Peru to Miami.
Barrage and Granda — represented respectively by Miami attorneys Marcos Beaton and Daniel Rashbaum — admitted dealing with Ferrari as part of their smuggling of tainted gold between January 2013 and March 2017 for NTR, which is owned by a Dallas-based parent company, Elemetal.
Federal prosecutors said the two defendants circumvented Elemetal’s anti-money-laundering compliance program by buying gold from Ferrari. An Elemetal compliance officer warned Barrage and Granda about buying gold from the Peruvian gold smuggler, according to a factual statement filed with the two defendants’ plea agreements. But the NTR employees ignored the warnings and set up accounts at Elemetal for a series of Peruvian “front companies” so they could buy and import $400 million worth of gold.
In total, the NTR employees purchased $1 billion worth of gold from “collectors” of the precious metal in Peru during 2013, before Peruvian authorities began cracking down on the illegal mining and smuggling trade. Authorities there seized some of Ferrari’s shipments destined for NTR in Miami.
The case has illuminated Miami’s central role as an international gold-trading hub, with the majority of the precious metal imported into the United States through Miami International Airport by NTR Metals and other dealers in South Florida.
Neither NTR nor Elemetal, the parent company, has been charged in the case. But Elemetal has been suspended from buying, refining and selling gold on precious-metals exchanges. Elemetal’s lawyer, Trey Gum, has not returned repeated calls or emails for comment.