South Florida

Drug money didn’t go to aide to Venezuelan president

Editor's Note: This story corrects certain details of the related story  linked in the first paragraph, 'Bal Harbour to Caracas: Millions in drug money'

A former union worker who later became an assistant to the Venezuelan president did not receive drug money in a Panama bank from a troubled police task force as previously reported in the Herald, an external audit shows.

The money, instead, was wired to a man with a similar name who was tied to a vast criminal network in South America that moved large shipments of cocaine to the United States, records show.

William Amaro Melendez was among numerous Venezuelan nationals who were sent money by the Tri-County Task Force, an undercover unit in Bal Harbour that laundered millions for drug organizations during a sting operation from 2010 through 2012, but never made a single arrest.

The misidentification stemmed from information provided by four different Banesco Panama bank employees — one in person and three by phone — prior to the publication of the story on Dec. 27.

The employees, including a branch supervisor in Panama, said the account was still open in December and verified it belonged to William Amaro Sanchez, the man who became an aide to President Nicolás Maduro.

After publication, the bank contacted the Herald and said the account did not belong to the presidential assistant, but to William Amaro Melendez, and that it had been closed since 2011, according to a review by the auditing firm of Ernst and Young.

After conducting its own investigation, the bank said that when the Herald was contacting employees for the story, the bank’s internal data system used by employees did not show all of the critical information about the account, including the fact that the account was closed, and the account number. As a result, the bank is now revising its system, Ricardo Ayala, Banesco Panama chairman and board president, told the Herald.

Ayala said he believed the incomplete data may have been the reason his employees verified the wrong information.

Amaro Sanchez did not respond to numerous messages left by reporters before publication, nor to subsequent messages left at presidential offices after the story was published. Amaro Melendez, 35, did not respond to emails and phone messages left at his office in Venezuela.

The Herald found more than $4.5 million was laundered through overseas bank accounts by the task force, which is now the focus of a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, the Internal Revenue Service and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The task force wired about $200,000 into the account of William Amaro Melendez and more than $2.5 million into Banesco accounts belonging to Fabian and Jonathan Cedeno, Venezuelan citizens who were tied to a drug and money-laundering organization that moved cocaine from Colombia to the United States and Europe, federal court records and interviews show.

The year after the drug money was wired, Banesco said it shut down most of the accounts after turning up suspicious activities and reporting them to Panama regulators.

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