FBI uncovers drug money-for-aircraft laundering scheme

Por Venezuela Real - 4 de Febrero, 2008, 10:25, Categoría: Corrupción

CURT ANDERSON - Legal Affairs Writer
Associated Press
February 04, 2008

MIAMI – The FBI has uncovered a scheme in which drug profits were allegedly funneled from South American traffickers through Mexican money exchanges to a Miami bank, then used to buy airplanes intended to ferry more cocaine shipments around the world.

A Venezuelan man is jailed in Miami on money laundering charges and more arrests are possible, with a confidential witness providing the FBI with a treasure trove of information about the international arrangement, according to U. S. court documents.

Mexico's currency exchange organizations, or casa de cambios in Spanish, have emerged as a favored way for drug smugglers to launder their ill-gotten gains. But it's unusual for traffickers to buy airplanes on the legitimate U. S. market and then convert them into cocaine flights.

"On a large scale, it hasn't happened before," Steve Robertson, a spokesman at the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, said Monday. "They're doing it to further their business, which is pretty darn clever. But we're pretty clever, too."

According to an FBI affidavit filed in federal court, the scheme worked like this:

Drug traffickers deliver bulk cash to currency exchanges in Mexico City where there were "trusted contacts." For a fee, the exchanges wire transfer money to "buffer" bank accounts in the United States overseen by people who were also paid a fee. Then that money is used to buy airplanes for the cocaine trade.

"The principal reason for the buffer accounts was to disguise the true source of the monies," said FBI agent Michael Hoenigman in the affidavit.

Charged in the Miami case is 48-year-old Pedro Benavides Natera, a Venezuelan national accused of money laundering violations by setting up an account at Commerce Bank for drug profits and brokering deals for the aircraft.

Benavides pleaded not guilty Jan. 11 to money laundering charges and is being held without bail; his Miami attorney did not return a telephone call Monday seeking comment.

Despite his not guilty plea, the FBI affidavit says that Benavides admitted working for an unidentified drug trafficking organization based in Venezuela to purchase aircraft.

In September 2006, a twin-engine King Air E90 was purchased as part of the alleged scheme because it is "a favorite platform to transport cocaine from Venezuela to Guatemala or the Dominican Republic," the FBI affidavit says. That plane was bought legally from a Miami company and sent to Venezuela.

The traffickers also sought to purchase a twin-engine Cessna Conquest II using drug profits circulated through the Miami bank. These aircraft are used to fly cocaine from Venezuela to Africa, according to court documents.

The Benavides account at Commerce Bank was mostly inactive between January 2005 and May 2006, with an average balance of about $1,500. But suddenly its deposits from Mexican money exchanges shot up by more than $430,000 over the next several months and the money was tracked to the King Air purchase.

Charles Intriago, a former federal prosecutor who tracks money laundering issues as publisher of Moneylaundering.com, said traffickers would consider it "smart business" to use their profits – most of it from American drug users – to reinvest in the business by purchasing new drug-carrying aircraft.

"The drug traffickers are not dumb people," Intriago said. "They want to get the money out of the country and inject that cash into more welcoming institutions. Then they bring it back by wire and put it into investments, into real estate, even into insurance."

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