The Chicago drug dealers working for notorious Mexican gangster El Chapo had a big problem on their hands: What should they do with the millions of dollars in cash they earned from selling cocaine?
They bought gold. Tens of millions of dollars worth from pawnshops — rings, necklaces and watches.
Then they had to find a place to fence it all.
More than a thousand miles away, in an industrial warehouse in South Florida, they found the perfect partner: an obscure gold-trading company called Golden Opportunities. El Chapo’s crew shipped the metal in dozens of FedEx deliveries to the Hallandale Beach company, according to federal court records.
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The owners of Golden Opportunities, Jed and Natalie Ladin, may not have known they were working with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo — but between 2011 and 2014 his brutal Sinaloa cartel laundered nearly $100 million of cocaine cash through Golden Opportunities, court records show.
The Ladins did more than look the other way: After selling the gold to big refineries that would melt it down for manufacture into coins, bars and high-tech consumer products, Golden Opportunities wired the proceeds to Sinaloa shell companies in Mexico. That made Jed, 69, a former antiques dealer, and his wife, Natalie, 65, part of an international money-laundering operation transforming El Chapo’s cocaine profits into clean cash.
The money-laundering pipeline was revealed in 2014 in the ongoing federal prosecution of 30 members and associates of the Sinaloa cartel in Chicago. Already, more than half of the defendants have pleaded guilty, including the group’s two leaders. A dozen other alleged participants are fugitives. (El Chapo is in a U.S. prison awaiting trial for a different series of crimes.)
The Ladins’ case shows how international organized-crime groups manipulate America’s hush-hush gold industry to launder money and keep their businesses running. Even minor industry players like the Ladins can wind up playing supporting roles in vast criminal operations. While the couple was never charged in the Chicago case, Golden Opportunities shut down after the Ladins pleaded guilty in 2014 in a separate money-laundering prosecution involving gold.
The gold industry — where deals are made quickly and informally — is a “loosey-goosey” market easy for dirty cash to infiltrate because of “good old-fashioned greed,” said John Tobon, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in South Florida.
“A handshake goes a long way and that’s the way gold [trading] works around the world,” Tobon said.
The Chicago coke-to-gold scheme was based on a tried-and-true criminal playbook: During the late 1980s, in a case dubbed “Operation Polar Cap,” federal investigators discovered Colombia’s Medellín cartel had funneled $1 billion in dirty money through jewelry stores in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami.
Now, the entire gold industry is under a cloud: After winning a $3.6 billion money-laundering case against three South Florida gold traders, federal prosecutors in Miami are targeting Latin American drug traffickers who’ve infiltrated the U.S. gold market. Their efforts — which are separate from the Chicago prosecution of the Sinaloa cartel — could scoop up more small-time gold-industry players like the Ladins who moonlight as money launderers for kingpins.
Off the farm
Jed Ladin’s path is an unlikely one that took him from North Dakota farm boy to Florida antiques dealer caught in a gold smuggling web. In his youth, he did a stint in the family business as a cattle buyer in Manitoba, then moved into real estate, developing more than 1,000 apartment units in Canada.
“He put in 80-hour weeks without complaining,” business partner and family friend Abe Anhang recalled in court papers.
But he always yearned for a warmer climate.
And so in the late 1970s he moved to the Fort Lauderdale area to start an antiques company.
Carl Stoffers ran an antiques business in Fort Lauderdale and knew Ladin for 30 years as the two competitors crisscrossed Florida for auctions and estate sales. Ladin’s company, Jed David Collection, became one of the biggest players in South Florida, Stoffers said. But Ladin wasn’t flashy.
“Jed was not a multimillionaire,” Stoffers told the Miami Herald. “He didn’t have any lavish homes or ride around in a Rolls-Royce. The guy got up at 5 o’clock in the morning. He ate in his car. He had 50 types of vitamins in his trunk he would take every day. He could outwork any of the other dealers.”
He also developed an eye for the next big thing.
When the internet ate away at brick-and-mortar antique stores in the early 2000s, Ladin turned to eBay long before his competitors caught on.
And then a few years later, as the price of gold began to skyrocket, Ladin had a stroke of genius: Antiques dealers, he realized, no longer needed to sell their gold rings and bracelets as jewelry. The value was in the metal — and he could be the one to cash in.
He bought a modest precious-metals business with Natalie in 2007, a year after they were married. The union was a second marriage for both.
The company was incorporated as Natalie Jewelry but did business as Golden Opportunities in a Hallandale Beach industrial warehouse off Interstate 95 in South Florida.
Within a few years, the price of an ounce of gold had nearly doubled — and the Ladins made a killing, at one point employing 50 people and opening branch offices as far away as Mexico.
“He landed on a golden egg,” Stoffers said.
But it wasn’t enough. Starting in 2011, according to federal court records, the Ladins turned to money laundering as a way to generate even more cash.
Golden Opportunities proved a prime ally for international drug smugglers because it had offices in both South Florida and Mexico City.
Between June 2013 and January 2014, a Chicago-based money broker secretly working as a Homeland Security informant arranged for the Sinaloa cartel to make nearly 20 transactions with Golden Opportunities, according to an indictment.
The indictment refers to “Refinery A” in Florida as the gold buyer, which several sources familiar with the case said is a reference to Golden Opportunities.
Cartel members based in Chicago collected shopping bags and suitcases of drug cash from associates in the Midwest and South. They used the money to sweep up gold from pawnshops and jewelers. Then, they shipped the goods to Golden Opportunities, which in turn sold the gold to big refineries.
To cover up the dirty deals, Jed Ladin created fake invoices to make it appear that the company was buying gold from a Mexican jewelry store, De Mexico British Metal. Federal agents said the store was owned by a Sinaloa cartel member, Carlos Parra-Pedroza, who inexplicably went by the nickname “Walt Disney.” He was described as a ringleader in the Chicago money-laundering case.
At Parra-Pedroza’s direction, Golden Opportunities wired millions of dollars to the store and to other members of the cartel in Mexico, court records show. In return, Ladin received packages from Parra-Pedroza’s store in Mexico — but they weren’t filled with gold.
In an attempt to throw off U.S. Customs agents, Parra-Pedroza exported “brass from Mexico to Golden Opportunities, but in the paperwork he claimed the brass was gold,” according to a Homeland Security Investigations affidavit.
In April, Parra-Pedroza pleaded guilty in federal court to a money- laundering conspiracy. So did senior Sinaloa cartel member Diego Pineda Sánchez, who was based in Mexico.
El Chapo himself, who famously escaped twice from Mexican prisons, is awaiting trial in the United States on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering unrelated to the gold scheme. Federal prosecutors called him the biggest cocaine dealer in the world.
Jed and Natalie Ladins’ luck ran out in January 2014 when federal agents swarmed Golden Opportunities’ Hallandale Beach warehouse and arrested the couple. They weren’t charged in connection with the Chicago case, though. Agents were looking for evidence of a different scheme. And they found it.
The Ladins’ other racket started with a gold transaction with a broker in Mexico. The broker suggested that the Ladins could make some extra cash by wiring money to Mexico, although the couple didn’t have a license to transmit currency, according to court papers. The couple was desperate for cash because gold prices were plummeting.
The Ladins admitted picking up shopping bags of cash in restaurant parking lots delivered by the Mexican broker and his brother. In total, the Ladins wired $2 million to 21 people in Mexico between October 2013 and January 2014 — again by creating fake invoices that their jewelry business was buying gold. Jed Ladin admitted that he suspected the cash “was derived from criminal activity.” But he said the brothers wouldn’t let him stop.
Eventually, the Ladins pleaded guilty to a money-laundering conspiracy. (The Mexican broker and Golden Opportunities’ former chief financial officer were later acquitted at trial in Miami; the broker’s brother, also charged in the case, is a fugitive.)
The raid didn’t just end the Ladins’ money-laundering scheme — it also stopped the Sinaloa cartel associates in Chicago from using Golden Opportunities as a fence to sell dirty gold, according to court documents.
In a recorded phone conversation, the Sinaloa ringleader, Parra-Pedroza, warned a federal informant not to ship gold to the Ladins.
“Don’t call the number I gave you,” said the man known as Walt Disney. “They caught the refinery [on] the beach.”
“Get out of here,” the informant replied. “Now what?”
“Who knows?” Parra-Pedroza said.
With Golden Opportunities out of the picture, the Sinaloa network found another dealer in Los Angeles to buy their tainted gold. Court papers do not identify that second business.
Investigators in Chicago and Miami did not share information or collaborate. The raid on Golden Opportunities came as a surprise to federal authorities in Chicago, court papers show.
Jed Ladin, who has three grown children from a previous marriage, ended up being sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the Miami case. His wife, Natalie, who was born in Mexico and has three adult children of her own, was given probation.
The Ladins and their lawyers, Catherine Christie and Robert Josefsberg, declined to comment for this story.
The couple’s criminal activity took a devastating toll on their lives, according to court documents. In order to pay back the U.S. government for their crimes, they sold their jewelry, a beachfront Lauderdale-by-the-Sea condo and other assets totaling about $1.1 million.
Jed Ladin was released from prison this past fall into the custody of a halfway house in South Florida. His confinement will end this summer. Natalie, who cares for a daughter with severe disabilities, is living in a modest one-bedroom Fort Lauderdale condo.
Despite Jed Ladin’s criminal activity, those who knew him told a judge that Ladin was a man of the highest character.
In a letter before Ladin’s sentencing, one Golden Opportunities employee described his former boss as “a father to me.” The employee, Garry Scott, said Ladin put him in a management job, gave him $1,000 for a car repair, convinced him to go back to school and helped him recover from a traumatic romantic breakup.
“Jed is one of the few people in the world,” Scott wrote, “you can actually call a good person.”