Massive Cartel Laundering Ring Busted as County Tells Feds to Back Off Dirty-Money Probe

Cartels used Miami peso exchanges to launder millions in cash, prosecutors say.
Cartels used Miami peso exchanges to launder millions in cash, prosecutors say.
Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

This past Tuesday, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman had a serious question for the feds who have zeroed in on Miami as a haven of illicit money laundering: "Why target just Miami-Dade County?" she asked. Commissioners then approved her resolution, which expressed grave "concerns" that Miami's image was being damaged by suggestions that the world's crooks were cleaning their cash in Dade.

Today, federal and local prosecutors delivered a hearty response to that question. They're expected to announce later this afternoon that 22 people have been charged in a huge drug cartel money-laundering operation — including a chief lieutenant of "El Chapo" — right here in Miami-Dade County. 

"It is very complicated... one transaction after another transaction – all designed to hide what they are doing,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told the Miami Herald .

Now, to be fair to Heyman and her colleagues, their resolution dealt strictly with federal oversight of cash deals for real estate in Miami. Heyman represents some high-end markets in Miami, including Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles Beach, and she worried the feds' move would hurt business. 

"I know it has a negative impact on real estate," Heyman said at Tuesday's meeting, noting that Broward and Palm Beach realtors were pouncing as a result.

El Chapo, the infamous Mexican drug cartel leader, was laundering cash in Miami, prosecutors say.
El Chapo, the infamous Mexican drug cartel leader, was laundering cash in Miami, prosecutors say.

But the commission's timing in passing the resolution was already boneheaded, because it came amid the massive "Panana Papers" leak. Millions of documents from a Panamanian firm that sets up overseas shell companies has exposed Miami as — surprise! — a haven for all kinds of unsavory secret cash in real-estate deals.

Today's arrests only add to the commission's tone-deafness in passing that resolution this of all weeks. Prosecutors say the cartel arrests point to one of the largest drug cash laundering operations in Florida history. 

The criminals, they say, were Mexican and Colombian cartels. And instead of using real estate, they cleaned their drug profits through a web of businesses that operated as a black-market peso exchange. 

Miami prosecutors worked with Homeland Security agents to bust the gangs through wiretaps and informants in an investigation dubbed "Operation Neymar," because many of the drug smugglers used soccer star aliases. 

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In essence, the Herald reports, the scheme worked like this: Mexican cartels bought Colombian product on credit, sold it across the Americas, and then paid the Colombians back in U.S. dollars. To convert that cash to pesos, they'd sell those dollars to Colombian businesses who got a better exchange rate than they would on the legit peso market.  

Among the 22 arrested was Juan Manuel Alvarez Inzunza, a chief launderer for El Chapo, the infamous drug lord captured in January after his latest dramatic jail escape.  


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