Massive Cartel Money Laundering Scheme Busted; $6 Million Cash, Guns, Half-Ton Of Drugs Recovered

A massive international money laundering operation based on San Diego has been taken down by a multi-agency task force involving 15 agencies and 24 offices, including the FBI, IRS, DOJ, DEA, ICE, San Diego law enforcement, Mexican Federal Police and the Mexican Financial Intelligence Agency (UIF). 

According to recently unsealed indictments, 40 individuals have been charged in connection with an international money-laundering operation with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. The recent indictments brings the total number of defendants in the case to 75, spanning five states and Mexico. 

Jose Roberto Lopez-Albarran, a significant money broker for a Mexican-based international money laundering organization, along with other members of the organization, allegedly laundered tens of millions of dollars in narcotics proceeds from the United States to Mexico between 2015 and 2018. As a result of the investigation, law enforcement seized more than $6 million dollars in United States currency as well as 95 kilograms of methamphetamine, 63 kilograms of heroin, 10 kilograms of fentanyl, 92 kilograms of cocaine, 252 kilograms of marijuana, worth millions of dollars on the streets, and 20 firearms, including semiautomatic assault rifles and handguns.

Lopez-Albarran oversaw the scheme to transfer millions of dollars in narcotics proceeds from the United States to drug suppliers in Mexico, including individuals working for the Sinaloa Cartel. 

The syndicate coordinated their operation using, among other things BlackBerry devices - which as we reported Yesterday, authorities arrested the San Diego-based CEO of a company which provides ultra-secure BlackBerries to the Sinaloa cartel and other organizations involved in the drug trade. 

Undercover agents from San Diego were able to infiltrate Lopez-Albarran's organization - gaining his trust over two years until they were tasked with picking up bulk currency across the United States - identifying "money movers" lower down the totem pole in the process. In addition to San Diego, indictments were issued for defendants in Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas and Washington.

Cash pickups took place in parking lots, hotels and restaurants across the country - using hidden vehicle compartments, luggage, duffel, bags and shoeboxes. The cash would then be deposited into funnel bank accounts and wire transferred to Mexican bank accounts associated with fake Mexican companies controlled by the money laundering operation. 

"By targeting these money movers, law enforcement was able to discover multiple drug trafficking cells across the United States responsible for importing and distributing substantial quantities of fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine," said the Justice Department in a release. 

Lopez-Albarran was arrested February 9 in San Diego and remains in federal custody along with several co-defendants arrested between January 11 and January 17, all in San Diego as well. Another lead defendant, Manuel Reynoso Garcia and several co-conspirators were charged last month in San Diego federal court for their roles in the sophisticated money laundering operation. 

We have siphoned the cash and the life out of a San Diego-based international money laundering organization with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel,” said U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman. “By following the money, we have discovered large quantities of fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine that are no longer destined for the streets of America. That’s a one-two punch that takes these organizations completely out of the ring and makes our communities safer.”

The charges include Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances, in violation of Title 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846, and Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. 1956(h)). The penalties range from 10 years to life and fines of up $500,000 or twice the value of the contraband recovered by authorities. 

“These types of complex investigations, spanning across the nation and our international boundaries, requires a fundamental change in how we share information, coordinate and collaborate. These joint investigations, where shared awareness and decentralized execution was the norm, can and must be how we disrupt these drug trafficking and money laundering networks in the future,” said Special Agent in Charge John A. Brown of the San Diego Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  “This case model is built upon the incredible collaboration of the federal, state, and local partners across the United States and in Mexico. Today, this case exemplifies how dedicated collaboration equals success.