In the bad old days of Miami Vice, the feds fixated on chasing after narco-traffickers like Pablo Escobar and grabbing their drugs and cash.
But as the city morphed into a global hub of commerce, it also turned into a massive washing machine for cleaning all variety of illicit money.
Billions started cascading into South Florida banks, waterfront condos and exotic cars — the bulk of it stolen by politically connected kleptocrats from Venezuela and other Latin American countries. While federal authorities have pursued the pervasive crime of money laundering over the past decade, it’s only in the past year that Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office joined forces to confront it head-on.
HSI launched a task force, modeled after one in New York, called “El Dorado South.” Prosecutors followed suit with their own money laundering section.
“It’s a perfect storm of foreign public corruption and money laundering,” Miami HSI’s special agent in charge, Anthony Salisbury, told the Miami Herald in a recent interview on the joint crackdown.
“This is the definition of the corrupt rich making themselves richer,” he said. “These guys would make the narcos blush, and they do it under the guise of legitimacy.”
The El Dorado South task force was started in 2018 but its focus on money laundering crimes had already been one of the main missions of Homeland Security Investigations dating back a couple of decades, Salisbury said. El Dorado, with dozens of local, state and federal law enforcement members, brought HSI’s various financial crimes units under one roof.
HSI’s money laundering investigators in Miami have seized more than $1 billion in assets — including the late pop superstar Michael Jackson’s crystal-studded white glove from his “Bad” tour (valued at $275,000) and other Jackson memorabilia (worth $827,000) that had belonged to an Equatorial Guinea vice president, according to court records.
The agency’s foreign corruption cases have resulted in about 250 arrests, but some defendants, including several in Venezuela, remain at large.
More than half of those assets — $653 million — have been seized from U.S. and Swiss bank accounts, including $250 million turned over last year by Venezuela’s former national treasurer, Alejandro Andrade, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for embezzling billions from his government along with alleged co-conspirator, Caracas TV network mogul Raul Gorrin. He is wanted in Miami on a money laundering and foreign corruption indictment.
Millions in horses, houses, cars
HSI’s task force has also confiscated $296 million in horses, watches and other personal assets; $72 million in real estate; and about $5 million in vehicles — including last month’s seizure of more than 80 luxury cars and SUVs bound for Venezuela’s political and business elite in a ring allegedly run by Gorrin, according to authorities. Gorrin’s defense attorney denied his involvement.
El Dorado South is structured like the only other task force like it in the country, founded in New York by Customs agents in 1992.
HSI’s Kevin Tyrrell, who heads the group, said it was the brainchild of longtime Miami money laundering investigator John Tobon, who tried for years to persuade prosecutors that the crime was not just about drug traffickers trying to hide their unlawful profits in U.S. bank accounts and other assets like pricey real estate. Money laundering spanned a spectrum of crimes, from foreign corruption to gold smuggling, and entailed the use of shell companies, straw owners and sham documents to hide the identities of criminals.
Tyrrell said that criminals have become increasingly sophisticated, knowing they can’t just walk into a bank with $100,000 in cash and deposit the money. Bankers won’t risk depositing it without knowing where it came from, because they are obligated under the Bank Secrecy Act to ask how the money was earned. So instead of taking their dirty money to banks, many criminals use the cash to buy high-value investments or seemingly legitimate businesses.
“It’s a constant game of cat and mouse,” Tyrrell said. “As criminal activity has evolved, so has money laundering. These are professional money launderers. They have developed an expertise to move money illegally through the banking system.”
Dirty money in plain sight
The extent of suspicious money laundering was in such plain sight to Ariana Fajardo Orshan after she took over as the U.S. attorney in the fall of 2018 that she proposed creating a money laundering section in her office — independent of similar units already in the narcotics and economic crimes sections.
Fajardo told her staff that while she was driving around Miami at night, she was struck by the number of high-rise condos with no lights on, suggesting they were investment properties purchased mostly by foreign buyers. “How can people buy multimillion-dollar condos and not live in them?” Fajardo told her staff.
The money laundering section was launched in March 2019. Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Forand, who heads the section, said the mandate was “to follow the money and where it flows.”
Forand said the goal is to “disrupt the flow of money” through both criminal and civil forfeitures connected to any type of illegal activity.
“It’s all about getting their assets and making sure you get all their toys,” he said. “It’s a big weapon of deterrence.”
Earlier this summer, his office filed a lawsuit to seize a luxury high-rise condo overlooking Biscayne Bay belonging to a minister of parliament in the Republic of the Congo.
Denis-Christel Sassou Nguesso, whose father has been president of the oil-rich Central African nation since the late 1970s, transferred millions of dollars through an unknown associate to bank accounts in South Florida to buy the condo for $2.8 million in the 900 Biscayne Bay tower, court records show. Prosecutors said the president’s son bought the 3,500-square-foot penthouse apartment with money stolen from the Congo’s national oil company and are suing to seize the condo in what they describe as an alleged “international money laundering conspiracy.”
The biggest catch for prosecutors and the El Dorado South investigators so far: Andrade, Venezuela’s former national treasurer. He wrote several checks totaling $250 million to the U.S. government last fall, after the money had been transferred from his Swiss bank account to his defense attorneys in Miami. That payment was counted towards a $1 billion forfeiture judgment against him.
Andrade also lost the following in federal seizures: six South Florida real estate properties, including a Wellington horse farm; a waterfront Palm Beach residence and a Pinecrest estate ($33 million); as well as 14 show-jumping horses ($2 million), 35 designer watches ($1.5 million) and a fleet of 10 exotic foreign cars ($1 million), according to authorities.
Other recent notable seizures: A waterfront Cocoplum estate and a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe that once belonged to Andrade’s alleged co-conspirator, Gorrin. He is accused of stealing billions from Venezuela’s state-run oil company and kicking back funds to the former treasurer. The feds are targeting his 6,000-square-foot home, which had been on the market for $8 million, and the $200,000 Rolls convertible — along with 20 other real estate properties worth tens of millions of dollars in the Miami area and Manhattan.
“The kleptocrats are stealing from their own people and their own country,” HSI’s Salisbury said. “One or two percent of the country’s wealth goes to the elites connected to [President Nicolas] Maduro. That’s what these cases are all about.”