South Florida

Illegal gold dealer weeps as he’s sent to prison for money laundering

Colombian police battle illegal gold miners

In the Colombian rainforest, outlaw gold mines are poisoning workers and the environment. Police venture deep into the jungle to destroy them with explosives.
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In the Colombian rainforest, outlaw gold mines are poisoning workers and the environment. Police venture deep into the jungle to destroy them with explosives.

Renato Rodriguez, a Brooklyn transplant with working-class roots, wept as he apologized to a Miami federal judge on Wednesday before being sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for his supporting role in a $3.6 billion money-laundering scheme built upon illegal gold imports from Latin America.

“I just want to say how sorry I am to my family,” said Rodriguez, 44, who worked as a gold dealer for the now-shuttered NTR Metals in Doral. “I love my family very much.”

Rodriguez was arguably the least culpable of a trio of NTR precious-metals dealers who bought billions in illegally mined and smuggled gold from drug-trafficking organizations based in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia. But Rodriguez waited until late October to plead guilty to a single money-laundering conspiracy charge, after his two fellow brokers had cut cooperation deals with the U.S. attorney’s office — and that strategy cost him a bit more time behind bars.

U.S. District Judge Robert Scola gave Rodriguez a slightly harsher sentence than Samer Barrage, 40, a former NTR vice president, who received nearly seven years, and Juan Granda, 36, a former salesman, who got six years at their hearing in January.

All three defendants, who faced up to a maximum of 10 years in prison on the conspiracy conviction, are assisting the U.S. attorney’s office in the unfolding money-laundering probe. That could lead to criminal charges and substantial fines against NTR and its Dallas-based parent company, Elemetal, as well as the targeting of other suspects in the sprawling gold-import racket between Miami and Latin America.

Investigators with Homeland Security and the FBI are focusing on Miami’s entire precious-metals industry, which imports more gold than any other city in the United States.

Rodriguez, depending on the value of his insider knowledge, could see his sentence reduced further. Unlike the other two defendants, Rodriguez was granted a bond after his arrest last March and does not have to surrender to prison authorities until mid-April. He has already paid $107,000 in restitution to the government — money he saved from his total salary of $643,000 with NTR over four years.

Prosecutor Francisco Maderal proposed a maximum 10-year prison sentence for Rodriguez, which contrasted with his recommendation of lesser punishment for Barrage and Granda because of their earlier pleas and cooperation.

Instead, Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Sabrina Puglisi, asked the judge to give her client eight years because of his remorse, commitment to his family, community service work and lesser role in the money-laundering conspiracy. Rodriguez had met the other two defendants when they all worked at HSBC in the subprime mortgage loan business in South Florida. When Barrage and Granda went to work for NTR Metals, Rodriguez eventually joined them in 2013. Barrage was in charge of NTR’s Latin American operation, focusing on Colombia. Granda’s territory was Peru, and Rodriguez focused on Ecuador.

Puglisi said Rodriguez stepped into a scheme that just “snowballed” as NTR’s trio of gold dealers hustled to satisfy their parent company’s constant demand for gold from Latin America between 2013 and 2016.

“He should have said no and he didn’t,” Puglisi told Judge Scola. “And he will forever regret that.”

In sentencing Rodriguez, Scola pointed out that the money-laundering offense was an “extremely serious crime.” But, as Scola did in sentencing his partners, Barrage and Granda, the judge emphasized the “harm” of the crime itself, saying their wrongdoing contributed to the deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest and the poisoning of workers and the environment. Miners who work in the gold mines of remote jungles regularly use toxic mercury to extract gold from rock, a process that pollutes waterways, fish and people.

Scola declared that their wrongdoing caused “societal damage in South America.”