Miami-Dade County

Miami man in middle of billion-dollar gold-smuggling case fights for release before trial

An ounce of gold currently sells for $1,289.
An ounce of gold currently sells for $1,289. The Miami Herald

In mid-March Juan Granda was summoned from Colombia to Miami to attend a meeting with his employer, a precious metals refinery.

NTR Metals fired him from his job as a South American gold dealer. Later that day, Granda's mother called to say that federal agents were at her Cutler Bay home looking for him. Rather than head back to South America, he immediately went over to her house and was arrested.

“At no point did Mr. Granda ever take a single step suggesting any intent to flee,” his defense attorney, Daniel Rashbaum, said in court papers.

Granda, 35, a U.S. citizen born in Ecuador, is now fighting his detention as a flight risk before trial in one of the biggest money laundering cases in South Florida history. It’s an alleged scheme centered on South American drug traffickers suspected of funneling billions of dollars of illegally mined Amazon gold through Granda and two other NTR Metals employees to the Miami refinery.

Granda’s attorney says that while his client’s relatives own a farm in Ecuador, the Florida State University graduate’s life revolves around Miami and his mother — contrary to the position of prosecutors and a federal magistrate judge. An appeal to U.S. District Judge Robert Scola is scheduled for next Thursday.

Granda, formerly NTR Metals’ director of operations based in Peru and later in Colombia, is accused of conspiring with the two other company employees to commit money laundering, according to an indictment. If convicted, each faces up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors assert the three defendants bought billions of dollars worth of gold from illegal mines in the Amazon rain forest, arranged to refine the precious metal at NTR in Miami, sold the gold and then wired the proceeds back to drug traffickers in South America, according to a criminal complaint summarizing the federal conspiracy case. Narco-traffickers financed the clandestine operation to convert their cocaine profits into cash, according to prosecutors, who did not charge the three defendants with any drug offenses.

Days after Granda's arrest in mid-March, prosecutors named his co-defendants in a subsequent complaint and the indictment: former NTR salesmen Renato Rodriguez, 42, and Samer Barrage, 39.

Rodriguez, born in New York City, was released on a $100,000 bond. “My client is fighting the charges and wants to go to trial,” said defense attorney, Sabrina Puglisi, explaining that his low bail is not a sign he’s cooperating with authorities. “He obviously was not seen as a flight risk.”

But Barrage, a U.S. citizen born in London, was ordered held as a flight risk before trial by another magistrate judge because he traveled from Miami to Colombia on a four-day business trip after Granda's arrest. Prosecutors accused Barrage of fleeing the country. Federal agents flew to Colombia to arrest Barrage on March 23, just as he was returning to Miami.

But his defense attorney, Marcos Beaton, said that while his client knew Granda had been arrested, Barrage was not identified in the original complaint and did not know he was going to be charged before he left for Colombia.

“My client bought a round-trip ticket from Colombia to Miami for a routine business trip,” said Beaton, who plans to appeal Barrage’s detention order, based on his ties to Miami, where he lives with his wife and two children. “Once he knew he was charged, he moved up his return flight to Miami by one day. To characterize that as fleeing the country is wrong.”

U.S. Customs records show that NTR imported $3.6 billion worth of illegal gold through a “shifting array of Latin American countries” under the “responsibility” of Granda and the two Miami-based NTR sales people between 2012 and 2015, according to the complaint by Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI.

“For all of the billions of dollars’ worth shipped from Latin America to NTR in Miami, NTR sent billions of dollars in wire payments to Latin America from the United States,” said the complaint, filed by prosecutor Francisco Maderal.

The complaint accuses Granda and the two other NTR sales people of participating in “smiling and dialing” strategies to find out who had gold to sell, develop new relationships and promote NTR — including bringing customers to Miami to tour its facilities at 8266 NW 14th St.

NTR Metals is owned by Elemetal Direct, based in Dallas. The parent company has not been charged in the case. Elemetal’s lawyer, Trey Gum, could not be reached for comment.

The case has put a spotlight on 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 to be refined by NTR Metals and other companies in South Florida.

“Illegal gold, mined in violation of foreign law, is a significant problem throughout Latin America and particularly Peru, where illegal mining is responsible for the devastation of large swaths of rain forest,” the complaint stated generally. “The international gold trade has become a common method for the laundering of illegal mining, narcotics and other criminal proceeds.”