Approximately 1,000 law enforcement officials fanned out across the Fashion District in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday to execute dozens of search warrants and arrest warrants linked to businesses suspected of using black market peso exchange schemes to launder narcotics proceeds for international drug cartels.
Authorities arrested nine defendants and seized what is estimated to be at least $65 million in cash and from bank accounts around the world in relation to asset forfeiture actions filed as part of the ongoing investigations.
One case unsealed Wednesday alleges that the Sinaloa Drug Cartel used a Fashion District business to accept and launder ransom payments to secure the release of a United States citizen who was kidnapped by that narcotics organization, held hostage, and tortured at a ranch in Mexico.
Two other indictments also involve alleged money laundering by other Fashion District stores using the black market peso exchange scheme.
In the scheme, a peso broker works with an individual engaged in illegal activity, such as a drug trafficker, who has currency in the United States that he needs to bring to a foreign country, such as Mexico, and convert into pesos. The peso broker finds business owners in the foreign country who buy goods from vendors in the United States and who need dollars to pay for those goods. The peso broker arranges for the illegally obtained dollars to be delivered to the United States-based vendors, such as the stores in the Fashion District, and these illegally obtained dollars are used to pay for the goods purchased by the foreign customers. Once the goods are shipped to the foreign country and sold by the foreign-based business owner in exchange for pesos, the pesos are turned over to the peso broker, who then pays the drug trafficker in the local currency of the foreign country, thus completing the laundering of the illegally obtained dollars.
This BMPE scheme, which is also known as trade-based money laundering, is often used by Mexico-based drug trafficking organizations to collect money from their drug sales in the United States without having to take the risk of smuggling bulk amounts of U.S. currency across the Mexican border and without having to convert and wire the U.S. currency through established financial institutions, which not only carries transaction fees, but also a threat their illegal activity will be detected.
“We have targeted money laundering activities in the Fashion District based on a wealth of information that numerous businesses there are engaged in black market peso exchange schemes,” said Robert E. Dugdale, the assistant United States attorney who oversees the Criminal Division in the Central District of California. “Los Angeles has become the epicenter of narco-dollar money laundering with couriers regularly bringing duffel bags and suitcases full of cash to many businesses. Because Los Angeles is at the forefront of this money laundering activity, law enforcement in Los Angeles is now at the forefront of combatting this issue.”
In the criminal case related to the laundering of ransom money to the Sinaloa Cartel, three people were arrested today for their roles in a peso scheme based at a Fashion District wholesaler named QT Fashion, Inc. The indictment in this case also alleges that a Sinaloa, Mexico-based business, Maria Ferre S.A. de C.V., was involved in the scheme to launder ransom money. Following the kidnapping of a United States citizen by the Sinaloa Drug Cartel, QT Fashion allegedly accepted bulk cash and funneled the money through 17 other Fashion District businesses at the direction of Maria Ferre.
The indictment alleges that the Sinaloa Drug Cartel ordered the kidnapping of the victim after authorities in the United States seized more than 100 kilograms of cocaine that he was responsible for distributing. The victim was held at a ranch in Culiacan, Sinaloa, where he was beaten, shot, electrocuted and waterboarded. The hostage was released after relatives paid $140,000 in ransom, and he is currently in the United States, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office.