ATLANTA – Eleven individuals were charged Wednesday with laundering more than $40 million in drug proceeds back to Mexico through Atlanta-area money remitters following a three-year criminal investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the IRS.
According to court documents, in 2014, HSI Atlanta special agents began investigating individuals across the Atlanta area that were suspected of using money-broker businesses to launder drug proceeds from the United States back to Mexico by breaking up large amounts of cash into smaller transactions, and using false names and addresses in an attempt to disguise the electronic transfers as remittances.
These small money-broker businesses allow customers to wire funds to individuals in other countries without using traditional bank accounts and are commonly used by foreign nationals to send money to family and friends across the border.
HSI Atlanta special agents determined during the course of the investigation that managers and employees of a number of metro-Atlanta money remitters were knowingly helping the money launderers send drug proceeds to Mexico. Cooperating sources and an undercover law enforcement officer subsequently brought money that was represented as coming from drug sales to different remitters.
In exchange for a kickback, managers and employees of nine different businesses allegedly agreed to willfully launder these purported drug funds to Mexico by breaking the transactions into thousands of smaller transactions and by listing fake sender information.
“Using money remitters to launder illegal drug proceeds is just one more way drug cartels fuel their criminal enterprises,” said U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia John Horn. “The business model of many Mexican cartels requires a means to get their cash profits across the border and into the hands of the supervisors and sellers. This investigation shows that they may have found an effective means through unscrupulous money remitters. We hope these cases will help to close this pipeline.”
“Narcotics traffickers will attempt to create elaborate financial networks in an effort to launder illegal drug proceeds,” stated IRS Acting Special Agent in Charge James E. Dorsey. “IRS Criminal Investigation will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to peel back every intricate layer used to launder those proceeds and expose everyone involved.”
The indictments allege that the defendants tried to conceal the source of the funds by circumventing the Bank Secrecy Act, which requires financial institutions, including money remitters, to monitor their clients for suspicious conduct and to obtain valid identification for high dollar remittances.
The defendants allegedly kept their transfers under certain dollar amounts to avoid raising suspicion. Several of the defendants allegedly served as the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) Compliance Officers for their respective stores and were responsible for detecting and reporting these types of illicit financial transactions.
Federal agents conducted search warrants at several metro-Atlanta area money remitters Tuesday and arrested nine defendants.
The following individuals were arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Russell G. Vineyard:
- Oscar Gustavo Perez-Bernal, 34, of Atlanta. Perez-Bernal was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at La Tienda and Cocina Linda Vista -- both located in Chamblee. These two stores allegedly transmitted more than $16.9 million.
- Itzayana Guadalupe Perez-Bernal, 24, of Norcross. Perez-Bernal was an employee at La Tienda.
- Norma Dominguez, 57, of Atlanta. Dominguez was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at La Veracruzana, located in Chamblee. This store allegedly transmitted more than $5.7 million.
- Norma Carrera, 39, of Atlanta. Carrera was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Hilos y Estambres Teresita, located in Chamblee. This store allegedly transmitted more than $6.1 million.
- Victor Perez, 30, of Lawrenceville. Perez was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Intercargo, which had offices in Lawrenceville and Marietta. This store allegedly transmitted more than $7 million.
- Merli Sandy Tejeda-Bermudez, aka Jorhley Adadlay-Bermudez, 30, of Duluth. Tejeda-Bermudez was the manager and compliance officer at Mundo Cargo and RR Latinas, which were both located in Lawrenceville. This store allegedly transmitted more than $1.5 million.
- Daniel Castaneda-Garcia, 31, of Atlanta. Castaneda-Garcia was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Taqueria el Dany, located in Lawrenceville. This store allegedly transmitted more than $300,000.
- Susan Fiorella Ayala-Chavez, 30, of Lawrenceville. Ayala-Chavez was an employee at the Rainforest Chevron gas station in Lawrenceville. This store allegedly transmitted more than $3 million.
- Lidia Pineda-Altamarino, 32, of Lawrenceville.
The following individuals have been charged with money laundering but have not yet been apprehended:
- Norma Eriza-Gomez, 41, of Mexico.
- Marina Eriza-Gomez of Mexico.
In addition to HSI and the IRS, the Gwinnett County Police Department, Georgia State Patrol and Powder Springs Police Department provided assistance to the investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas J. Krepp and Alison B. Prout are prosecuting the case. The Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section provided significant assistance.
Members of the public are reminded that the indictments only contain charges. The defendants are presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove the defendants’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.