News and Press Releases

Professional Money Laundering Ring Charged with Laundering $27 Million in Drug Trafficking Proceeds Using “Black Market Peso Exchange”

Aug. 17, 2012

HOUSTON – A three-count federal indictment has been partially unsealed following the arrests of three people charged in a multimillion dollar money laundering conspiracy, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced today along with Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

Investigators say the “black market peso exchange” benefits criminal organizations by giving them a means to launder illicit proceeds using international trade. The system also gives foreign retailers access to discounted U.S. currency, which enables the foreign retailers to avoid steep exchange rates and other fees. For the U.S.-based company, the scheme is a way to substantially increase sales volume.

“We put a high priority of going after the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations including the manner and means by which they launder their illicit proceeds, said Magidson.”

“According to the indictment, the defendants enabled dangerous narcotics traffickers to access their ill-gotten gains and evade law enforcement,” said Breuer. “Professional money launderers are integral to criminal organizations and vigorously prosecuting them is a critical part of the department’s comprehensive approach to dismantling those criminal organizations for good.”

The indictment alleges that beginning as early as October 2009 until at least September 2011, the defendants operated a money transmitting business, based primarily out of Houston and Mexico, through which they provided professional money laundering services to narcotics traffickers in a type of scheme commonly referred to as “the Black Market Peso Exchange.” Specifically, the defendants allegedly picked up bulk U.S. cash that had been derived from the sale of illegal narcotics in several U.S. cities, including Dallas, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C., and received bulk cash at their headquarters in Houston. They then deposited the money into various bank accounts in the names of “shell companies” owned and controlled by the defendants, according to the indictment. The money was then allegedly transferred to bank accounts owned by retailers in the U.S. and in Mexico. The indictment further alleges that in exchange, pesos were transferred to bank accounts owned and controlled by their clients. During the time of the charged conspiracy, the defendants allegedly laundered more than $27 million.

The indictment was partially unsealed upon the appearance of Sarah Combs, 48, of Dickinson, Texas, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson in Houston this afternoon. Agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Internal Revenue Service - Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) also arrested Willie Whitehurst, 44, of Houston, today. He is expected to appear before a U.S. magistrate judge on Monday. Enrique Morales, 42, of Houston and Guadalajara, Mexico, was arrested Tuesday night and made his initial appearance yesterday in Laredo, Texas, at which time he was ordered into custody pending a detention hearing set for Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, in Laredo. The indictment remains sealed as to those charged but not as yet in custody.

The men are charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering for which they face up to 20 years in federal prison as well as conspiring, from Oct. 30, 2009 through Nov. 12, 2011, to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business and face an additional five years in prison. Enrique Morales is further charged with promotional money laundering, involving the Jan. 28, 2011, purchase of an airplane. The indictment alleges he used $90,225 of proceeds of the organization’s unlicensed money transmitting business to buy an airplane so the defendants could more efficiently and safely transport the illegal proceeds they were hired to transmit and launder. If convicted, he faces an additional 20 years imprisonment. The indictment also seeks forfeiture of more than $27 million and a 1979 Piper airplane.

The case was investigated by the special agents with DEA and IRS-CI and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Ted Imperato of the Southern District of Texas and Keith Liddle, Trial Attorney in the Money Laundering and Bank Integrity Unit of the Criminal Division’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section.

The Money Laundering and Bank Integrity Unit investigates and prosecutes complex, multi-district and international criminal cases involving financial institutions and individuals who violate the money laundering statutes, the Bank Secrecy Act and other related statutes. The unit’s prosecutions generally focus on three types of violators: financial institutions, including their officers, managers and employees, whose actions threaten the integrity of the individual institution or the wider financial system; professional money launderers and gatekeepers who provide their services to serious criminal organizations; and individuals and entities engaged in using the latest and most sophisticated money laundering techniques and tools.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence.
The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.




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