Miami-Dade County

22 face charges in Miami drug money-laundering ring involving ‘El Chapo’ cartel

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle talks about the disruption of an international money-laundering ring during a press conference, Thursday on Operation Neymar.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle talks about the disruption of an international money-laundering ring during a press conference, Thursday on Operation Neymar. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

A sophisticated ring of money launderers — with an array of pop cultural nicknames like “Tony Montana,” “Pitbull” and “Neymar” — has been busted on charges of sending untold millions in illegal cocaine profits to Colombia using nearly a dozen businesses in Miami-Dade.

Miami-Dade authorities announced arrest warrants for 22 people believed to have worked in a scheme that included the suspected chief money launderer for the Mexican drug cartel headed by notorious kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Elusive drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán gets fingerprinted by authorities after his January 2016 arrest. He had escaped from prison in summer 2015. (Narration in Spanish)

The wide-reaching probe into the so-called “black market peso exchange” — which involved monitoring deals in 17 countries — is the first such case to be filed in Miami-Dade state court, and offers the most recent window into the drug-fueled underground lending system that law enforcement authorities believe props up hundreds of South Florida businesses.

“They use Miami’s strong international economy as the actual funnel of all of their international money-laundering operations,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told reporters at a press conference on Thursday. ‘We are surely the global hub for money laundering.”

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Three people were arrested in Miami this week, while another major player has been jailed in Cali, Colombia, to await extradition to the United States. One more was arrested in Boston. In all, 18 people — most remain fugitives — will be tried in Miami-Dade, with the rest being tried in other U.S. cities.

The two-year probe — dubbed Operation Neymar because one suspect used the name of the Brazilian soccer star and other players as his aliases — was conducted by agents from the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, Miami-Dade police and state prosecutors. As part of the investigation, undercover agents laundered a “small fraction” of drug proceeds to build evidence against the group, prosecutors said.

The operation stands in stark contrast to the now disgraced and disbanded money-laundering sting unit run by Bal Harbour Police, which by 2012 had laundered millions for cartels but never made any arrests.

The arrests also come as the “Panama Papers” and other investigations have put intense scrutiny on financial shenanigans in South Florida real estate — leading the County Commission to pass a resolution this week asking the federal government to stop singling out Miami as a hub for money laundering.

Prosecutors say Operation Neymar — which netted more than $1 million in seized drug cash — proves that major drug money laundering is still thriving in Miami.

According to them, one of the major players in the group was Mexican Sinaloa Cartel member Juan Manuel Alvarez Inzunza, 34, who was arrested by Mexican authorities last month. He is suspected of laundering billions of dollars of drug proceeds.

He is now awaiting extradition to the United States, where he will first stand trial on federal charges in San Diego. For now, he has not been charged in the Miami-Dade case.

The two big players being charged are suspected money-laundering brokers for the cartel in Cali, Colombia: Ivan Alfredo Castro Santana and Ivan Andres Lizarazo Mendoza, who was nearly kidnapped and killed by the Colombian cartel after police in Miami seized $200,000 in drug money.

They are being charged with racketeering and money laundering. Lizarazo’s sister in Miami, Sidia Milady Lizarazo Mendoza, is also accused of money laundering and is now being held on a $1 million bond in a Miami-Dade jail.

Prosecutors say the group used throwaway Blackberry phones, employing ever-changing pass codes that, in English, seem nonsensical. One example: “Con mollo departe del panzon” – or “with the dark-skinned one, on behalf of the potbellied.”

To unravel the money-laundering operation — which was washing about $1 million a month — investigators used wiretaps, surveillance, reviews of thousands of financial transactions and cooperation from informants, according to an arrest warrant by HSI agent Charles Thomas, Miami-Dade Detective Jonathan Santana and prosecutor Jared Nixon.

Money laundering, of course, is nothing new in South Florida. And while drugs don’t flow into the United States through Florida in the volume they did in the 1980s, Miami remains the main hub for laundering the illicit profits.

The reason: So many businesses here, particularly in Doral, do business with Colombia. In April 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a warning to 700 Miami businesses believed to be involved in laundering drug money.

According to law enforcement, the black-market peso exchange requires a number of steps to launder drug proceeds.

The Mexican cartels use credit to buy loads of cocaine from their counterparts in Colombia. The drugs are smuggled into the United States, then routed to cities across the country where they are sold to dealers who peddle them to users.

The resulting millions in drug dollars, temporarily stored in “stash houses,” must then be converted to pesos for the Colombian cartel.

So the cartel employs a money broker know as the primera mano, or first hand, who arranges to buy U.S. dollars in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. He, in turn, puts out a “bid” — all arranged through covert Blackberry text messages — for sub-brokers willing to buy the dollars.

Sub-brokers then turn to Colombian businesses that need U.S. dollars to buy goods or services from the United States. For those businesses — say a Bogotá electronics store needing to buy U.S. cellphones — it’s way cheaper to buy dollars from the black market than through official Colombian channels that charge high exchange rates, plus hefty taxes and fees.

A Bogotá business might place an order with a Miami distributor for a load of phones, makeup or textiles, telling them their payment will arrive via a wire transfer from an unnamed “third party.”

“If as a business you are receiving funds or interacting with third parties that are alien to your business transaction, you’re in the middle of a black-market scheme,” said John Tobon, South Florida’s HSI Deputy Special Agent in Charge.

Investigators believe most Miami companies involved in the black-market peso exchange have a general idea of what’s going on — but ask no questions. In Operation Neymar, prosecutors identified, but did not charge, 11 local businesses, including M2 Wireless of Doral, Dis Cells Corporation of Miami Beach and Hair and Accessories of Opa-locka.

“Pick-up crews” are hired to get the cash from couriers, always in mundane public spots, the money stuffed in shopping bags, backpacks or shoe boxes. In the newly charged case, some of the pick-up spots included a Starbucks in Doral, a parking lot at the Dolphin Mall and a Dunkin’ Donuts in New Jersey, prosecutors said.

The next step: The pick-up crew begins depositing the cash into a “funnel” bank account, all in small increments to avoid attention from law enforcement. Those accounts then wire the money to the Miami business, which in turn sends its goods such as cellphones to the Colombian business.

Back in Colombia, that legitimate business pays back its pesos to the brokers, who can finally pass the money to the cartel.