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Washington D.C.
Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Sophisticated Sinaloa Cartel Money Laundering Organization Dismantled

In total, dozens of bank accounts used by the organization were targeted, resulting in the seizure of $1 million from those accounts plus about $197,430 in bulk cash.

A two-year investigation by FBI and DEA has resulted in the indictment of twelve people, the takedown of a transnational criminal organization that allegedly laundered at least $16.5 million for the Sinaloa cartel, and the rescue of two victims of an extortion plot.

Defendant Cristian Amaya Nava was the first to be sentenced in federal court yesterday to 60 months in prison in connection with the extortion and money laundering charges. In his plea agreement, he admitted that in February of 2021, he forced two victims to withdraw funds from their own accounts to repay a drug debt, under threat of harm to themselves and their families.  In addition, he admitted that he laundered over $2.4 million for the cartel.

According to the superseding indictment, an investigation was initiated in the fall of 2020 after FBI agents identified a complex money laundering organization allegedly led by Enrique Daan Esparragoza Rosas of Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico. The indictment said Esparragoza’s organization used a network of shell companies incorporated in Wyoming to launder millions of dollars in cash belonging to the Sinaloa Cartel. The shell companies and a sophisticated financial network were created and overseen by Luis Ramirez, a U.S. citizen residing in Mesa, Arizona, the indictment said.

Ramirez and Esparragoza allegedly directed and facilitated employees of the money laundering organization to travel to cities throughout the United States to pick up bulk cash belonging to narcotics traffickers. The employees picked up the bulk cash in Chicago, Omaha, Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Charlotte, Philadelphia and other cities. Narcotics traffickers delivered bulk cash in amounts of up to $200,000 to the employees in hotel rooms and parking lots. Following the delivery of the illegal money, the criminal organization laundered the funds through the shell companies and then transferred the laundered funds to bank accounts in Mexico.  In total, dozens of bank accounts used by the organization were targeted, resulting in the seizure of $1 million from those accounts plus about $197,430 in bulk cash.

In November 2020, the FBI worked with the DEA Chicago Field Office to conduct an operation using information from the investigation which resulted in the seizure of 368 pounds of crystal methamphetamine and 10 kilograms of heroin, allegedly from defendants Sugey Caro Salazar and Idsel Valenzuela in LaPorte, Indiana. They are accused of delivering cash to an employee of the money laundering organization.

According to the indictment, funds laundered by the organization were used to purchase a Volvo tractor-trailer that FBI agents seized near Las Vegas; and aircraft and aircraft engines for export to Mexico, among other things.

In the extortion plot, the FBI’s efforts resulted in a successful rescue of two victims who were being extorted by the money laundering organization in February 2021. Prior to the extortion, one of the victims, an employee of the money laundering organization, began stealing illicit funds from a bank account that he controlled for the organization. Under pressure from the organization to return the stolen funds, the victim and his family member concocted an unsuccessful scheme to repay the debt: He stole an additional $30,000 from the money laundering organization to purchase a tortilla machine, intending to resell it for a profit. The pair owed a substantial debt to the money laundering organization.

According to the indictment, when Esparragoza and Ramirez learned of the theft, they conspired to threaten and extort the pair to repay the funds.  Esparragoza sent defendant Amaya Nava to threaten the men and their families.  Amaya Nava has admitted that he drove the two men around Imperial and San Diego County to collect money from bank accounts they controlled. According to admissions in Amaya Nava’s plea agreement, Esparragoza also directly threatened the men and their families during several phone conversations that day, telling them that two truckloads of men from Tijuana would “take care of them” if they did anything stupid.

The FBI learned of the ongoing extortion after being alerted by an informant and began tracking the victims and Amaya Nava’s movements.  Amaya Nava drove with the men from El Centro to San Diego in an effort to collect additional money from an associate of one of the victims. FBI agents coordinated with the National City Police Department to conduct a traffic stop wherein Amaya Nava was arrested and the two victims were rescued.

To date the investigation has resulted in the arrests of Amaya Nava and Luis Ramirez, who were charged with extortion and money laundering charges; Ivan Correia Zamora, Ricardo Torres, Kimberlly Reyes, Hector Francisco Vizcaino Moreno, Luis Armando Avila, and Cheliann Rivera Vazquez who are facing money laundering charges; Melvin Rosado (aka) Cristian Cruz Polanco has been arrested on money laundering and aggravated identity theft charges. Sugey Caro Salazar and Idsel Valenzuela have been arrested and charged with narcotics trafficking and money laundering. Enrique Daan Esparragoza Rosas has been charged with money laundering and extortion offenses. Enrique Daan Esparragoza Rosas has been charged with money laundering and extortion offenses. All but two defendants are pending trial. Enrique Daan Esparragoza Rosas and Ivan Correia are fugitives.

“Drug cartels exist to profit from the sale of poison to our communities,” said Special Agent in Charge Shelly Howe. “The DEA and our law enforcement partners will continue to target and dismantle money laundering organizations operating in the Imperial Valley that facilitate the movement of drug proceeds from the United States to Mexico-based drug cartels.”

“Mexican drug cartels cannot succeed without money launderers,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Our office will prosecute not only those who traffic in drugs but also those who enable the drug traffickers through sophisticated shell corporations and multiple bank accounts.”

“This operation highlights how the FBI and our law enforcement partners are joining efforts to dismantle organized, violent, criminal enterprises,” said Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy of the FBI San Diego Field Office. “These enterprises create a space for cartels to exist and we will spare no resources when it comes to addressing the criminals who enable the flow of poison to our communities.”

This case is the result of ongoing efforts by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a partnership that brings together the combined expertise and unique abilities of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, dismantle and prosecute high-level members of drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations and enterprises.

Read more at DEA

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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