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5 Venezuelans Indicted in Drug-Money Case

Courts: U.S. Customs investigation alleges that millions of dollars from drug cartels was laundered by the group, which includes two bankers.

May 21, 1998|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five Venezuelan nationals, including two bankers, laundered millions of dollars belonging to Latin American drug cartels, according to a federal indictment unsealed in Los Angeles on Wednesday in connection with Operation Casablanca, the largest drug money laundering case in U.S. history.

The undercover investigation by U.S. Customs agents resulted in indictments earlier this week against more than 100 defendants, including three large Mexican banks and 26 Mexican bankers.

In the latest indictment, the five Venezuelan defendants were accused of laundering $9.5 million through Venezuelan-based Banco del Caribe, Banco Industriale de Venezuela, International Finance Bank and Banco Consolidado.

One of the bankers, Esperanza de Saad, served as executive vice president at Banco Industriale de Venezuela's branch in Miami. She was arrested there Tuesday.

The other banker named in the indictment, Marco Tulio Henriquez, served as vice president at Banco Del Caribe in Caracas and vice president of Caribbean American Bank, a subsidiary in the Netherlands Antilles. He has not been arrested and is believed to be in Venezuela.

De Saad and Henriquez were among a number of Venezuelan bankers solicited to launder drug money by three money brokers for the drug cartels, according to the indictment.

The brokers were identified as Carmen Salima Yrigoyen, who was arrested by customs agents in Miami on Monday; Carlos Izurietta Valery, who was picked up in Los Angeles on Wednesday, and Roberto Vivas, who remains at large in Venezuela.

A spokesman for the prosecutor's office said the United States would seek the Venezuelan government's cooperation in finding and extraditing the two Venezuelan nationals still being sought.

The Venezuelan money laundering network was infiltrated by an undercover U.S. Customs operative in 1997, according to the indictment. The operative, using the false name of Jaime Ramirez, convinced the money brokers that he, too, was in the money laundering business and ran a front for the Cali cartel in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., called Emerald Empire Corp. In fact, Emerald Empire Corp. was staffed by Customs Service agents.

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Through the three alleged money brokers, "Ramirez" was introduced to de Saad and Henriquez, who agreed to launder drug money for a commission, offered advice on how to avoid detection, and promised to alert him if bank regulators or law enforcement officials asked questions about the transactions, the indictment said.

De Saad and Henriquez also allegedly opened bank accounts for Ramirez at their respective banks and introduced him to bank employees designated to accept his deposits and issue untraceable bank drafts.

Although the banks named in the indictment were not charged, the U.S. attorney's office said Wednesday it had seized $4.2 million from a Caribbean American account at Bankers Trust in New York. It said it was in the process of seizing $4 million more from the U.S. assets of Banco Industriale de Venezuela.

So far, more than $39 million has been seized from 14 Mexican and Venezuelan banks allegedly used by the money launderers.

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