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FBI Launches a Miami Anti-Corruption Task Force Focused on South America

FBI Launches a Miami Anti-Corruption Task Force Focused on South AmericaEXPAND
Photo by Alyssa Black / Flickr
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In a piece of news that begs the question, "What the hell were you doing before?" the FBI yesterday announced in a news release that it's creating a permanent task force to investigate money laundering and corruption in Miami's real-estate sector. Per the FBI statement, the new Miami International Corruption Squad will include bureau agents and forensic accountants specializing in white-collar financial crimes tied to South and Central America.

The agency already ran similar task forces in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Those offices previously handled cases related to Miami, but the city apparently has such a huge foreign money-laundering problem that the FBI finally decided to put a permanent corruption office here. The new wing of the agency will begin operating this month. (The Associated Press first reported the news yesterday.)

"The international corruption squads were created to combat international corruption by addressing foreign bribery, kleptocracy, and international antitrust matters," the FBI announced yesterday. "Investigations conducted by these squads generally focus on criminal acts occurring outside U.S. borders but having a nexus to the U.S. The squads routinely partner with foreign law enforcement and FBI legal attaché offices as a force multiplier to combat international corruption matters."

Analysts have long assumed that dirty foreign money has been propping up the city's luxury real-estate industry since at least the Great Recession. In 2016, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) began monitoring all cash real-estate purchases of $1 million or more in the city. After that monitoring rule took effect, the Miami Herald reported that cash purchases by shell companies and similar corporations dropped a stunning 95 percent. In 2018, FinCEN expanded its monitoring dragnet to include cash purchases of $300,000 or more.

The new FBI task force also comes amid a series of high-profile foreign corruption cases, including huge alleged money-laundering busts related to government officials in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. In one recent, utterly absurd case, the former head of anti-corruption investigations in Colombia, Luis Gustavo Moreno Rivera, was himself caught visiting Miami to take a cash bribe in a bathroom at Dolphin Mall. He later pleaded guilty.

In another case, a Miami man in 2018 pleaded guilty to funneling more than $1 million to officials at PetroEcuador, that country's state-run oil company, to win lucrative government contracts from 2013 to 2015.

And last year, the feds opened a bevy of cases against a series of Venezuelan officials the FBI claims were raiding the impoverished nation's state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PDVSA, instead of using that money to help the country's people. The feds say the money-laundering cases might tie back to Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro.

Of course, more than a little politics comes into play whenever the United States announces a law enforcement excursion into Latin America. The U.S. has a demonstrable history of cracking down harder on left-wing governments or American critics than regimes friendlier to U.S. business interests.

Still, it's fairly stunning that a task force like this didn't already exist in light of the obvious ubiquity of money laundering in Miami's real-estate sector — especially after the 2016 Panama Papers leak exposed all sorts of dirty cash flowing into the Magic City.

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