A Wells Fargo personal banker pleaded guilty on Thursday to knowingly opening bank accounts for people working with the Sinaloa cartel.
Thirty-year-old Luis Figueroa of Tijuana admitted he took part in the money laundering scheme that stretched across the US.
Between 2014 and 2016, money laundering organizations recruited people who would open bank accounts for the cartel’s drug money, according to the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of California. The operation laundered over $19 million dollars in narcotics proceeds.
The drug money would be deposited into the bank accounts, also known as “funnel accounts,” in amounts below the threshold for regulatory reporting.
Cash couriers would first pick up the drug money, often times stuffed it into “shopping bags, duffel bags or shoeboxes,” and then deposit it into Wells Fargo and other banks, the Justice Department said in a press release.
The couriers would split the funds into $22,000 to $45,000 increments and deposit them into the funnel accounts. The money would be wired to shell companies based in Mexico and then picked up by the cartel.
Figueroa went beyond opening the funnel accounts, he also wired money from those accounts, according to the DOJ. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Eight other people were arrested and charged in the joint FBI and IRS investigation.
“We can’t allow our banks to be laundromats for cartel cash,” US Attorney Robert Brewer said. “Bank employees who launder drug money for traffickers will face prosecution and prison.”
Regulatory agencies like the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network scrutinize bank accounts that receive several, questionable cash deposits of less than $10,000. Banks are also encouraged to flag suspicious accounts if an individual deposits money in a different region from where the original bank account is based.
The Sinaloa cartel is based in Mexico’s west coast and is one of the largest drug trafficking groups in the world. The first Mexican lab believed to have produced fentanyl was found in a home in Sinaloa’s state capital.