DS Assists in 'Operation Pinpoint' Money-Laundering ProbeU.S. Department of Justice
February 7, 2007
Twenty-seven Individuals Charged in Continuing Probe of Drug Money Laundering in Money Remitter Industry
Roslynn R. Mauskopf, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Julie Myers, Assistant Secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE"), and Raymond W. Kelly, Commissioner, New York City Police Department, announced the arrests yesterday of 27 money remitter owners or employees and the search of 24 money remitter locations for wire-transferring approximately $2 million in drug money to Colombia from storefronts located in Queens, Long Island and White Plains, New York. (NOTE: The charges contained in the complaint are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.) During the execution of the search warrants, agents seized approximately $300,000 in currency, some of which was hidden in ceilings or in wall safes. Agents also found structuring lists containing directions as to whom in Colombia the money remitters should wire-transfer drug proceeds. In conjunction with the execution of the search warrants, the NYPD Civil Enforcement Unit closed ten of the remitter locations under the city's nuisance abatement laws and will be proceeding against others over the next several weeks.
The charges and arrests are part of Operation Pinpoint, the latest phase in a continuing initiative designed to drive drug money out of the money remitter industry and ensure that members of the remitting industry comply with critical regulations designed to prevent the facilitation of criminal activity. The defendants are scheduled to appear before United States Magistrate Judge Lois Bloom today at the U.S. Courthouse, 225 Cadman Plaza East, Brooklyn, New York.
Since the mid-1990's, the El Dorado Task Force (Special Agents from ICE, Secret Service, and the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, New York City Police Department Detectives, New York State Troopers, and the White Plains Police Department) spearheaded an initiative to stop the use of money remitters as a vehicle to launder drug proceeds. The initial efforts in this initiative began when the government determined that money remitters were laundering hundreds of millions of dollars in drug proceeds annually to Colombia. Typically, a remitter receives money from a customer to send to a designated location. Legitimate remitters primarily serve recent immigrants in the United States, who do not have access to bank accounts and who use the remitter to send money home to family members. The early investigations revealed that the industry in New York had been largely transformed by narcotics traffickers into a vehicle for sending drug proceeds to drug source countries, primarily Colombia. Drug money was delivered to the money remitter, deposited into bank accounts, broken down into amounts less than $1,000 (commonly referred to as "structuring") to avoid currency reporting requirements (NOTE: Domestic financial institutions, including money remitters and money order sellers, are required by law to file a Currency Transaction Report, or CTR, with the Internal Revenue Service for each transaction in currency with a financial institution in excess of $10,000. Money remitters and money order sellers must also maintain records, including the identity of the sender, for any remittance or purchase of money orders in the amount of $3,000 or more), and then wire-transferred abroad. The investigation revealed that the remitters, in order to conceal the drug source of the funds, were routinely creating false documentation to make it appear as if the immigrants were merely sending money to family members.
The first phase of the initiative resulted in the convictions in the Eastern District of New York of 40 individuals and two licensed money remitters, the closure of four licensed money remitters, the execution of over 30 search warrants, currency seizures and forfeitures totaling approximately $2 million, and the issuance of a Geographic Targeting Order by the United States Treasury Department on August 5, 1996, requiring designated money remitters to file Special Remittance Reports for all cash remittances to Colombia in the amount of $750 or more. According to ICE, immediately after the issuance of the Order, the money remitter industry witnessed a precipitous drop in the amount of money being sent to Colombia, in some cases by as much as 90%.
In 2003, the United States Attorney's Office and the El Dorado Task Force completed another 18-month investigation, code-named "Operation Wiredrill/Remitters R Us," which addressed a resurgence in the use of money remitters to send drug money to Colombia. The investigation utilized undercover agents and confidential informants who, posing as drug traffickers, brought more than $1.5 million in currency to money remitter stores in Queens and on Long Island to be sent to Colombia. The agents and informants represented that the currency they delivered was the proceeds of drug sales, and offered cash payments in exchange for their help in laundering the money. Operation Wiredrill/Remitters R Us resulted in the conviction of 24 individuals, the search of eight money remitter locations, and the seizure of approximately $300,000.
Operation Pinpoint is the latest phase in the continuing effort to stop the use of the money remitter industry by drug traffickers. In 2005, information obtained during the course of investigation revealed an increase in the use of remitters and money order sellers to launder drug proceeds. This time, the storefronts were operating as networks, with one remitter or money order issuer accepting a portion of the drug money, and then recommending several other money remitter locations to the money launderer to handle the rest of the drug money. The storefronts shared in the profits made from each customer who brought drug money to a group of stores.
As part of Operation Pinpoint, confidential informants acting under the direction of ICE agents in New York brought drug proceeds to a targeted money remitter, together with a list containing the names and identification information of associates in Colombia who worked for the drug money launderers and who would pick up the money once it arrived. In each instance, the informant told the remitter which names on the list were to be used, and the remitter typically made up the sender information, such as name and address, as well as the dollar amount for each remittance, structuring the remittances by keeping the dollar amount below the $3,000 reporting requirement. The money was then wired to the recipient in Colombia. In many instances, in addition to remitting drug money, the targeted money remitter would issue money orders paid for with drug money. At each money remitter location, the informant made clear that the money being remitted was drug proceeds, typically from the sale of "manteca" or "perico," slang for heroin and cocaine. Occasionally, the informant offered to pay the remitter to locate couriers to import drugs for the informant. In total, the defendants laundered approximately $2 million through this criminal network.
"The sale of narcotics generates huge amounts of bulk cash that the traffickers have to launder," stated United States Attorney Mauskopf. "These defendants made the money remitter industry a tool of the drug trade to accomplish that end, and in the process transformed an industry designed to help hardworking immigrants into an illegal enterprise. We will continue to police this industry to ensure that drug money and other illegal funds stay out of the money remitter business."
"Dismantling vulnerabilities that threaten the safety of our communities is ICE's top priority," said Assistant Secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Myers. "This operation took steps to close the flow of the money pipeline that enriches and empowers the criminals that pollute the streets of New York with illegal drugs."
NYPD Commissioner Kelly stated, "I want to commend the members of the NYPD and our federal partners for this successful operation. The patient documentation by the NYPD's Civil Enforcement Unit of this criminal activity had a salutary effect: they padlocked the money laundry and closed it down."
If convicted of the crime of money laundering in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1956, the defendants face a maximum sentence of 20 years of imprisonment and a fine of $250,000, or twice the value of the money laundered.
The government's case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Bonnie S. Klapper.
Defendants and Search Locations:
Contact: Robert Nardoza