South Florida

Venezuelans arrested with $5 million worth of smuggled gold at Broward airport, feds say

Two Venezuelan nationals have been charged with smuggling $5 million worth of gold bars hidden inside the nose of a private plane that landed at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport last week.

Passenger Jean Carlos Sanchez Rojas and pilot Victor Fossi Grieco were arrested Friday at the airport after flying from Caracas, Venezuela, according to a federal criminal affidavit filed Monday. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents saw loose rivets on the plane’s nose compartment and investigated further. The gold was hidden under a metal panel inside the nose, they said.

The arrests may aid a wider U.S. investigation seeking to target gold smuggled from Venezuela into Miami and believed to enrich the beleaguered regime of President Nicolás Maduro.

After being detained, Sanchez Rojas, 41, told federal agents that he obtained the gold from “multiple sources” in Venezuela and planned to sell it in the United States, according to the affidavit. He said he was working for an “organization [that] had previously smuggled gold into the U.S.” and expected to receive a fee. Fossi Grieco, 51, said he met people in Venezuela to pick up the gold and stored it in the nose of the plane for two days before flying to Fort Lauderdale. He said he was to receive a commission for successful delivery of the smuggled metal, which weighed 230 pounds, according to federal agents.

Venezuela is rich in gold — but because the nation’s gold industry is controlled by Maduro’s government and criminal gangs, few U.S. companies will purchase it. That means sellers must find other ways to access the lucrative U.S. gold market, such as forging documents that state the gold was mined legally in neighboring countries. Miami has become a smuggling hub for such illegally mined “blood gold” that is purchased by U.S. refineries and ends up in jewelry and electronic devices sold to unsuspecting American consumers. The illicit pipeline was revealed in a 2018 Miami Herald series called “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.”

Earlier this summer, the Herald, el Nuevo Herald and a team of international reporting partners published a follow-up series called “Smuggler’s Paradise” that laid out how Maduro’s regime props itself up with profits from illegal mining operations that destroy the rainforest, expose locals to mercury poisoning and are intertwined with violent guerrilla groups and the cocaine trade. The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned Venezuela’s state-run gold company. The Herald and its partners revealed that several Fortune 500 companies were on the receiving end of gold mined illegally in Venezuela and other South American countries. The companies denied knowledge that their supply chains had been contaminated. Gold is difficult to trace because it is easy to melt down and “legalize” with fake papers.

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Upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale, Sanchez Rojas and Fossi Grieco failed to declare the gold to Customs officials, the affidavit states.

“It may be that there was no violation of the law,” said Joseph Rosenbaum, an attorney for Sanchez Rojas. “We’re looking into it and planning to turn over every stone. It’s very early.”

An attorney listed for Fossi Grieco did not immediately return a request for comment. The men are being held in Broward County jails. They were charged in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Sanchez Rojas and his wife were also carrying $24,000 in cash, which they declared. The smuggling count carries a maximum of 20 years imprisonment.

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Men hold gold-mercury amalgam at a gold mine in El Callao in Venezuela’s Bolivar state. Although life in the mines of eastern Venezuela is hard and dangerous, tens of thousands from all over the country head for the mines daily in overcrowded trucks. JUAN BARRETO AFP/Getty Images

The affidavit was signed by a Homeland Security Investigations special agent. HSI is helping lead a broader federal investigation into gold smuggled into the United States from illegal mines in Latin America. Nestor Yglesias, a spokesman for HSI, said the agency could not comment on an “active investigation.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Because of its proximity to Latin America, Miami has become the nation’s gold-import capital, both for legal and illegal gold. In 2018, three Miami-based gold dealers were convicted of a money-laundering conspiracy for their role in buying $3.6 billion worth of illegal gold from Peru. Their employer, Dallas-based Elemetal, was charged with failing to maintain a sufficient anti-money-laundering compliance program and fined $15 million. Earlier this year, three people were arrested for an alleged gold-smuggling racket run out of downtown Miami’s Seybold Building, a major jewelry market.

Illegal mining, which depends on the use of toxic mercury to strip gold from rock, is leaving gaping holes in South America’s vulnerable Amazon rainforest. Criminal gangs control many of the sites, which are rife with human trafficking and forced prostitution. Drug traffickers buy and sell the precious metal to launder cash earned from cocaine.

On a 2018 visit to the epicenter of Peru’s illegal mining industry, Pope Francis called gold a “false god that demands human sacrifice.”

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shows his appreciation for a gold bar, product of a mining industry that has kept his country afloat — barely — as oil production has faltered. It can be argued that it is the United States’ demand for gold that is keeping Maduro in power.

The story is much the same in Venezuela, where Maduro’s armed forces, Venezuelan criminal syndicates and armed groups from neighboring Colombia have seized control of the gold industry. With the collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry, Maduro has turned to gold to earn money and keep himself in power. The gold is smuggled out of Venezuela, often through Colombia and the Caribbean, and into Miami, sometimes following drug smuggling routes.

The Trump administration is targeting Venezuela’s gold industry in a bid to weaken Maduro.

“The illegitimate Maduro regime is pillaging the wealth of Venezuela while imperiling indigenous people by encroaching on protected areas and causing deforestation and habitat loss,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a March 19 statement announcing sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned Minerven gold company. “We will aggressively pursue those involved with Maduro’s reckless illicit gold trade, which is contributing to this financial, humanitarian, and environmental crisis.”

InfoAmazonia reporter Bram Ebus and Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.
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