Venezuela’s economic crisis coupled with toughened currency controls and a dollar black market are partly to blame for what happened to Johnny Romulo Betancor García at Miami International Airport (MIA) recently.
The 41-year-old Venezuelan was arrested by federal agents when he acknowledged that he was involved in unauthorized currency exchange dealings both in Venezuela and the United States, according to a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court by a special agent of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). An HSI spokesman in Miami would not comment because the case is still under investigation.
The case is one of the first linking a defendant in South Florida to illicit currency activities in Venezuela as the economic crisis there becomes more acute. The case also departs from the norm at MIA where customs officers generally stop suspicious foreign passengers on arrival, not on departure as in Betancor’s case. On March 22, for example, three Brazilian travelers were arrested at MIA for failing to declare the amounts of money they were carrying — a typical occurrence at the airport’s customs area.
Raphael Dos Santos Coqueiro, Guillermo Medeiros Merjam and Leonardio Morena Labruna had just arrived from Sao Paulo when suspicious customs officers detained them and asked them if each was carrying more than $10,000. They all said no.
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But during a more thorough inspection, the three men acknowledged carrying more money than they declared. In fact, customs officers eventually found that Coqueiro had $12,000, Medeiros $10,000 and Morena $9,000. Coqueiro then acknowledged that $14,000 of the money Medeiros and Morena carried belonged to him.
In Betancor’s case, he was questioned by customs officers as he prepared to board a flight to Caracas from MIA on March 20.
He was approached by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers inside the jet bridge passengers were using to board the flight, according to a criminal complaint filed by an HSI special agent .
For some reason CBP officers suspected that Betancor carried more cash than he had declared in his customs form. He was asked how much money he had in his possession. Betancor answered: $21,000, the same amount he noted on his customs form.
But when a CBP officer counted Betancor’s money, the actual amount turned out to be $24,000.
The discrepancy gave CBP officers a reason to question Betancor more closely. During the interrogation, Betancor provided varying explanations for the money.
At first, the complaint said, Betancor said he had traveled to Miami to buy items that were “needed” in shortage-plagued Venezuela. Then Betancor said he intended to use the money to buy a car in Venezuela.
Eventually, Betancor acknowledged that he is a broker in Venezuela’s illicit currency black market that involves the exchange of Venezuelan bolivares for U.S. dollars, the complaint said.
“Betancor García also stated that he receives Bolivares, the official Venezuelan currency, from persons in Venezuela and brings the Bolivars to the United States to deposit in his bank account at Bank of America,” the complaint said. “He then would exchange the Bolivares for U.S. currency and take it back to Venezuela for distribution.”
Investigators found 20 bank deposit slips among Betancor’s belongings from various banks including Bank of America, BB&T, Citibank and Wells Fargo, the complaint said. It added that the total amount of money Betancor deposited, withdrew or transferred March 17-20 was $105,954.
Betancor detailed his business to investigators. He said that in Venezuela he collects amounts in bolivares from his customers. Then he deposits the money into his Venezuelan bank accounts. Betancor would then fly to Miami and send wire transfers of the equivalent amounts in U.S. dollars to his customers’ accounts in the United States, charging about $200 per transaction.
In the end, Betancor was arrested not for carrying $3,000 more than he declared but for acknowledging that he had not registered his “parallel” currency exchange business in the United States.
Federal agents accused Betancor of operating an unlicensed money transmitting business and failing to register it with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Netwsork (FinCen).
Under Title 18, Section 1960 of the U.S. Code anyone who conducts, controls, managers, supervises, directs or owns all or part of an unlicensed money transmitting business can be fined or imprisoned for up to five years.
Betancor was indicted April and his trial has been tentatively schedule for mid-May. His attorney, Vincent Joseph Flynn, said he could not comment because the case is still active in court.
Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter @AlfonsoChardy