Mexican cartel money-laundering probe unfolds in Orlando


Filemon Garcia Ayala (U.S. Department of the Treasury )

February 17, 2013|By Amy Pavuk, Orlando Sentinel

Mexican drug cartels — the leading distributors of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine in the United States — make millions of dollars from their drug sales.

Once they unload all the narcotics in the U.S., the drug traffickers have a problem: moving the cash.

For more than a year, Orlando has been quietly playing a role in exposing a scheme to funnel millions of dollars in suspected drug money into U.S. banks, according to federal-court records.

The cartels can't deposit the cash into Mexican banks because of anti-laundering regulations there. So they've devised a plan to launder the proceeds without raising red flags: They smuggle the cash into Mexico.

The smuggled money is then brought back across the U.S. border under the guise of a financial-services business. That cash is deposited into U.S. bank accounts held by people contracted with the money-laundering groups, and the money is then wired to banks across the world.

In an effort to catch one of these money-laundering groups, agents created an undercover operation in Orlando and posed as associates of a Colombian drug-trafficking organization, records show.

It was through this undercover operation that agents engaged in multimillion-dollar dealings with Filemon Garcia Ayala, a suspected associate of the notorious Los Zetas cartel and president of Prodira Casa De Cambio, a currency-exchange business.

Now, federal prosecutors and Prodira's attorney are battling in Orlando over $2 million seized from an armored vehicle that Ayala and the undercover agent agreed to transfer. Ayala's attorney has stated that his client denies violating any laws.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced earlier this month that it designated Ayala and Prodira under the Kingpin Act, a measure that freezes their assets in the U.S.

The Treasury Department said Ayala leads a money-laundering network that makes large international transfers on behalf of Los Zetas, the powerful drug cartel.

"By exposing another key money operation tied to Los Zetas, Treasury is depriving the Zetas of an important avenue to launder their narco-dollars," Adam J. Szubin, the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control director, said in a statement.

Money laundering is a tremendous problem in America's fight against drug cartels, said E.J. Fagan, spokesman for Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.

"Cartels make billions of dollars every year, and most of that money eventually has to make its way into the financial system," Fagan said via e-mail.

Fagan said that most recently, HSBC Bank USA, based in New York, was fined $1.9 billion for failing to comply with money-laundering laws.

"As part of that settlement, HSBC-USA admitted that the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and the Norte del Valle Cartel in Colombia laundered $881 million through its bank that was only detected retroactively," Fagan said.

Federal records show that during a two-year period, Ayala imported more than $130 million in American currency into the U.S. — averaging more than $1 million a week.

In August 2011, law enforcement created an undercover business in Orlando, and an undercover agent met Ayala.

Negotiations followed, and the agent agreed to help Ayala and Prodira launder money by allowing the company to deposit cash into the undercover business bank account, the government alleges.

The undercover agent — who received a 0.3 percent fee for his work with Prodira — would then wire the funds to various accounts designated by Ayala.

"There was no legitimate business reason to transact business in such a circuitous manner," prosecutors stated.

At a meeting in Orlando in November 2011, Ayala told the undercover agent about a Miami businessman who owed him money. Ayala said there are people willing to kill or torture the businessman to retrieve the debt owed, court records allege.

Ayala then said he had "used these methods to make three people in Mexico disappear."

Ayala and the undercover agent made nine deposits, totaling roughly $4 million, into the undercover business account from November 2011 to December 2011, prosecutors said.

Authorities said that in January 2012, Prodira imported $2 million into Texas via private aircraft piloted by a company employee. Soon after, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents seized the cash from an armored vehicle. A police dog alerted on the money, indicating the cash was recently near drugs.

It's unclear whether Ayala, who is wanted by Mexican authorities on money-laundering charges, will be prosecuted in Orlando. He remains a fugitive. or 407-420-5735