Crime

Two Miami men convicted of laundering billions in Amazon gold

An ounce of gold currently sells for $1,335.
An ounce of gold currently sells for $1,335. Miami Herald

Two Miami businessmen who worked for a major U.S. importer of South American gold pleaded guilty Tuesday in a $3.6 billion money laundering case that has shaken up the nation's precious-metals industry.

In plea deals, Samer Barrage and Juan Granda admitted in Miami federal court that they imported illegally mined gold from Peru and other South American countries into the United States in a revised money-laundering conspiracy case that could send them to prison for up to 10 years. Under the previous conspiracy indictment filed in March, the two men faced up to 20 years.

Both men, who traveled extensively to South America, admitted smuggling tainted gold between January 2013 and March 2017 for NTR Metals in Miami, which is owned by a Dallas-based parent company, Elemetal.

Federal prosecutors said Tuesday that the two defendants circumvented Elemetal’s anti-money laudering compliance program by buying gold from a notorious Peruvian drug trafficker, bribing that country’s officials and falsifying paperwork. As part of their plea deals, both have agreed to cooperate in the expanding investigation into one of the biggest money-laundering schemes in South Florida history.

An Elemetal compliance officer warned Barrage, Granda and a third NTR employee about buying gold from the Peruvian trafficker, according to a factual statement filed with the two defendants’ plea agreements. But the NTR employees ignored the warnings and set up accounts at Elemetal for series of Peruvian “front companies” so they could buy and import $400 million worth of gold, prosecutors said.

In total, the NTR employees purchased $1 billion worth of gold from “collectors” of the precious metal in Peru during 2013, before Peruvian authorities began cracking down on the illegal mining and smuggling trade, according to prosecutors Francisco Maderal and Tony Gonzalez. Authorities there seized some shipments destined for NTR in Miami.

The case has shined 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 by NTR Metals and other dealers in South Florida.

Neither NTR nor the parent company, Elemetal, has been charged in the case. But Elemetal has been suspended from buying, refining and selling gold on precious-metals exchanges. Elemetal's lawyer has not returned repeated calls or emails for comment.

The sentencing hearing for the two defendants before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola is set for next February — one month after a third defendant, Renato Rodriguez, the third NTR employee, faces trial.

The threesome’s scheme centered on South American drug traffickers and other criminals suspected of funneling billions of dollars of illegally mined Amazon gold through the three NTR Metals employees to its final destination, Elemetal’s refinery in Ohio, according to prosecutors.

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, sold the gold and then wired the proceeds back to drug traffickers and other criminals in South America, according to a complaint summarizing the conspiracy case. Narco-traffickers and other criminals 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.

Granda, 35, a U.S. citizen born in Ecuador, was arrested at his mother’s Cutler Bay home in mid-March. After his initial arrest, prosecutors named his co-defendants in a subsequent complaint and the indictment.

Granda, a graduate of Florida State University, was denied bond because he was seen as a flight risk.

Barrage, 39, a U.S. citizen born in London, was ordered held for the same reason 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.

Rodriguez, 42, born in New York City, was released on a $100,000 bond. “My client is fighting the charges and wants to go to trial,” defense attorney Sabrina Puglisi said after an earlier court hearing.

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 the company’s three employees, 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,” the complaint said.

The complaint accuses the three NTR employees of participating in “smiling and dialing” strategies to find out who had gold to sell, develop new relationships and promote their company — including bringing customers to Miami to tour its warehouse facility at 8266 NW 14th St.

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