Multiple guilty pleas expose ability of drug cartels to launder drug proceeds through money remitters
ATLANTA – The last of nine Atlanta-based defendants charged with laundering drug money to Mexico through metro-Atlanta area money remitters has pleaded guilty, concluding a three-year long federal investigation targeting professional money launderers that exposed the ability of drug cartels to launder their illicit proceeds through money remittance companies.
“This investigation revealed how drug cartels use remittance companies to fuel their criminal enterprises,” said U. S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “Money remitters have strict rules to follow. When employees make a decision to ignore those rules, both the employee and money remitter businesses can face prosecution.”
“This case demonstrates the commitment of HSI and our law enforcement partners to dismantle and bring to justice those involved with trying to circumvent our financial laws and help launder illegal drug proceeds,” said ICE HSI Atlanta Acting Special Gregory Wiest.
“Drug Cartels are constantly looking for conduits like money service businesses to launder their illicit drug proceeds back to Mexico. We work to dismantle drug organizations by cutting off the money flow back to Mexico, this makes it harder for the drug cartels to operate,” said James Dorsey, Acting Special Agent in Charge, Atlanta Field Office. “IRS Criminal Investigation will continue to target these money laundering experts by working jointly with our law enforcement partners.”
According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the charges, and other information presented in court: In 2014, federal law enforcement agents began investigating individuals in the metro-Atlanta area that were suspected of laundering drug proceeds to Mexico. Federal agents utilized cooperating sources to infiltrate these individuals’ networks and determined that the money launderers were frequently using small businesses to send drug proceeds to Mexico. These small businesses offered “money remittance services,” which allow customers to wire funds to individuals in other countries without using traditional bank accounts.
Investigators determined that managers and employees of a number of metro-Atlanta remitters were knowingly helping the money launderers send drug proceeds to Mexico. During the course of this investigation, cooperating sources and an undercover law enforcement officer brought drug proceeds or money that was represented as coming from drug sales to different remitters. In exchange for a kickback, managers and employees of nine different remitters agreed to launder the funds to Mexico by breaking the transactions into smaller amounts and by listing fake sender names, addresses, and telephone numbers. The investigation revealed that nine metro-Atlanta remitters transmitted more than $40 million over a roughly four-year timeframe. The resulting guilty pleas in this case made clear that the bulk of this money came from the sale of illegal narcotics.
Several of the defendants who pleaded guilty actually served as the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (“BSA/AML”) compliance officers for their respective stores and were responsible for detecting and reporting these types of illicit financial transactions. Instead, these defendants used their anti-money laundering training to help the drug proceeds flow to Mexico undetected.
The recorded undercover transactions that took place during the operation exposed how willing many remitters were to help their customers secretly send drug proceeds to Mexico. One defendant, who served as a store manager and BSA/AML compliance officer, even gave an undercover officer tips on where to sell drugs in Atlanta. Another defendant, who also served as a store manager and BSA/AML compliance officer, offered to provide a cooperating source help on obtaining fake identifications so that drug proceeds could be transmitted to Mexico undetected.
The following individuals have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in money laundering and are awaiting sentencing:
- Oscar Gustavo Perez-Bernal, 35, of Atlanta, Georgia, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at La Tienda and Cocina Linda Vista, which were both located in Chamblee, Georgia.
- Itzayana Guadalupe Perez-Bernal, a/k/a Lupe, 24, of Norcross, Georgia, was an employee at La Tienda.
- Norma Dominguez, 57, of Atlanta, Georgia, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at La Veracruzana, which was located in Chamblee, Georgia.
- Norma Carrera, 39, of Atlanta, Georgia, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Hilos y Estambres Teresita, which was located in Chamblee, Georgia.
- Victor Perez, 31, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Intercargo, which had offices in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and Marietta, Georgia.
- Merli Sandy Tejeda-Bermudez, a/k/a Jorhley Adadlay-Bermudez, 30, of Duluth, Georgia, was the manager and BSA/compliance officer at Mundo Cargo and RR Latinas, which were both located in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
- Daniel Castaneda-Garcia, 32, of Atlanta, Georgia, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Taqueria el Dany, which was located in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
- Lidia Pineda-Altamarino, a/k/a Lily, 33, of Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Additionally, Susan Fiorella Ayala-Chavez, a/k/a Pitus, 30, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in money laundering and has been sentenced to three years, one month in federal prison. Ayala-Chavez was an employee at the Rainforest Chevron gas station in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
This case is being investigated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation. The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department, Georgia State Patrol, and Powder Springs Police Department provided valuable assistance throughout the course of the investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas J. Krepp and Alison B. Prout are prosecuting the case. The Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section provided significant assistance.
For further information please contact the U.S. Attorney’s Public Affairs Office at USAGAN.PressEmails@usdoj.gov or (404) 581-6016. The Internet address for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is http://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga.