Monday, March 8, 2021

US charges former Guatemalan minister Urrulea with money laundering

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A former Guatemalan economics minister laundered about $10 million in cocaine profits for traffickers while paying bribes to corrupt politicians and pocketing some money that passed through the U.S. bank accounts of Miami companies, authorities said Wednesday.

Acisclo Valladares Urruela, 44, has been charged with conspiring to commit money laundering but remains at large. Valladares, an attorney, is also wanted on related corruption charges in Guatemala, where he has been designated a fugitive.

The reason federal prosecutors are legally able to make the criminal case against the former foreign official is that some of the tainted money flowed through two Miami companies’ accounts to Valladares in Guatemala, according to a court filing. They also got critical assistance in the probe, called “Operation Black Mass,” from key cooperating witnesses involved in the alleged money-laundering network.

An FBI criminal complaint described Valladares, who worked in the administration of former Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, as an “enabler of the drug trade” in the cocaine pipeline between Colombia, Central America and Mexico.

Valladares collaborated with a major drug trafficker, a corrupt politician and crooked banker in Guatemala in creating a trail of “untraceable cash,” according to the complaint filed Wednesday in Miami federal court. Both the drug trafficker, who is in prison in the United States, and the bank employee, who has pleaded guilty, are cooperating with authorities in the case against Valladares, the complaint says.

The bank employee acted as a “conduit” between the drug trafficker and the corrupt politician — all unnamed — who supplied the cash to Valladares, the complaint says. Their alleged scheme entailed “unlawful money exchanges” between parties in different countries through “mirror transactions” that left no paper trails, says the complaint, filed by prosecutor Walter Norkin. In a mirror exchange, currency is delivered to a person in one country and currency of equal value is then issued to another person in a different country.

The alleged scheme, carried out between 2014 and 2018, allowed the parties to create “fraudulent” investment opportunities that yielded false financial gains and the creation of “sham” documents to make the profits look legitimate, the complaint says.

There were also hand-to-hand deliveries of cash. Valladares regularly received backpacks, duffel bags and briefcases full of “dirty” cash to launder drug proceeds and pay off politicians to gain support for a telecommunications company seeking a major national contract, among other bribes, according to the complaint.

At least four wire transfers totaling $500,000 were made through the U.S. banks of two unidentified Miami companies to Valladares, the complaint says.

U.S. Attorney Ariana Fajardo Orshan said in a statement that the case illustrates the “unfortunate links” sometimes forged among drug traffickers, business people and corrupt politicians — links extending to Miami, the gateway to Latin America.

“Although Miami serves as a bridge between the United States and our neighbors to the south, drug traffickers, corrupt officials and their dirty money are not welcome in our district,” she said.

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