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Press Release

Arizona man sentenced to 70 months in prison for laundering money and seeking to deliver ammunition to drug trafficking organizations in Mexico

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Washington
Defendant collected and deposited cash from drug sales in Washington, Illinois, Arizona, and New Mexico

Seattle – A 28-year-old resident of Nogales, Arizona, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 70 months in prison for conspiracy to commit money laundering and his attempt to smuggle ammunition for high powered firearms into Mexico, announced U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. Rafael Alejandro Canez, was arrested November 13, 2021, after he was contacted on multiple occasions attempting to hide ammunition in his vehicle to smuggle across the border to Mexico. Canez was also identified as part of a separate money laundering conspiracy. At the sentencing hearing Judge Ricardo S. Martinez said “If you are involved in money laundering for a drug ring, you don’t know for sure someone is going to die from the drugs…. But unfortunately, cartels are awash in guns.  If you are smuggling ammunition and gun parts the result is people dying -- innocent bystanders, other cartel members, or law enforcement officers.”

“The conduct in this case touches on the two things that keep the cartels flooding our country with drugs: the money they make and the guns they use to enforce their often violent conduct,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. “Mr. Canez played a critical role as a smuggler of both money and ammunition and so must be held accountable.” 

According to records filed in the case, Canez played a significant role in a massive multi-state and multi-national “funnel account” money laundering scheme. Canez traveled across the country collecting funds and depositing them in bank accounts which then were accessed to wire money to cartel connections in Mexico, or to withdraw cash and smuggle the money into Mexico. Canez personally laundered more than $1 million in cash for the drug trafficking organization. In just a few months in 2017 and 2018, more than $120,000 from Western Washington flowed through Canez’ account. Canez traveled to Illinois, Arizona, and New Mexico to pick up cash and make deposits – in Chicago alone he picked up $800,000 in currency.

On multiple occasions in 2020 and 2021, Canez came to the attention of law enforcement for his munitions smuggling scheme. In June of 2020, Homeland Security Investigations contacted him when he ordered 5,000 links for machine gun ammunition. The links allow a “belt” of bullets to be fed into the machine gun. Law enforcement seized the links. About a year later, Canez was found with 3,000 rounds for an AK-47 style rifle, and an upper receiver for an AR-15 style assault rifle. Canez admitted he planned to smuggle the ammunition into Mexico. Records reflect that he had purchased 16,000 rounds of that type of ammunition.

Finally, Canez was contacted as he was trying to leave the U.S. for Mexico and was found to be carrying 55 high-capacity magazines for AR-15-style assault rifles. The magazines were hidden in the spare tire underneath his vehicle.

Multiple law enforcement agencies worked on this case including Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Washington and Arizona, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) in Arizona, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Western Washington, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in Arizona.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Vince Lombardi.


Press contact for the U.S. Attorney’s Office is Communications Director Emily Langlie at (206) 553-4110 or

Updated March 31, 2023

Drug Trafficking
Firearms Offenses