More than $40 million in drug proceeds wired to Mexico through small shops

By David Pendered

Metro Atlanta’s position as a financial services center is well established. New federal convictions show that one drug cartel in the area laundered more than $40 million over three years through wire transfers from small local businesses to destinations in Mexico.

Hilos y Estambres Teresita, valentine's day

For Valentine’s Day, these stuffed animals were posted on the Facebook page of Hilos y Estambres Teresita, a shop in Chamblee where workers allegedly helped wire money from a drug cartel to destinations in Mexico. Credit: facebook.com

Nine defendants have pleaded guilty in connection with a money laundering operation that was detected in 2014, according to a Nov. 17 statement from U.S. District Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak.

The vehicle for transferring the money is a “money remitting service.” The service enables the transfer of money without the use of traditional bank accounts or payment operations, such as paypal.com, that require links to a traditional bank account.

Six of the alleged crooks worked as informants for a government program.

These folks agreed to detect and report illicit financial transactions in their capacity with the government’s Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering program.

That’s not what they did, according to the statement:

  • “Instead, these defendants used their anti-money laundering training to help the drug proceeds flow to Mexico undetected.”

Some of the defendants were so helpful to the money launderers that they gave advice on where to sell drugs and launder the proceeds, according to the statement:

  • “One defendant, who served as a store manager and BSA/AML compliance officer, even gave an undercover officer tips on where to sell drugs in Atlanta. Another defendant, who also served as a store manager and BSA/AML compliance officer, offered to provide a cooperating source help on obtaining fake identifications so that drug proceeds could be transmitted to Mexico undetected.”
Hilos y Estambres Teresita

The Hilos y Estambres Teresita shop in Chamblee posted this sign on its Facebook page when the immigrant community was promoting ‘A day without immigrants,’ a boycott/strike intended to draw attention to the contributions of immigrants to the U.S. society. Credit: facebook.com

The nine guilty pleas end a three-year investigation. Authorities said the case established the ability of drug cartels to launder their illegal profits through money remittance companies. These companies are the types of small shops that offer the service of transferring money abroad.

The shops in this case were located in Chamblee, Lawrenceville and Marietta, according to the statement.

This is how Pak’s statement described the operation:

  • “In 2014, federal law enforcement agents began investigating individuals in the metro-Atlanta area that were suspected of laundering drug proceeds to Mexico.
  • “Federal agents utilized cooperating sources to infiltrate these individuals’ networks and determined that the money launderers were frequently using small businesses to send drug proceeds to Mexico.
  • “These small businesses offered ‘money remittance services,’ which allow customers to wire funds to individuals in other countries without using traditional bank accounts.”

The local operators accepted kickbacks, of an undisclosed amount, to facilitate the money laundering operation. They broke the transactions into smaller amounts, to avoid detection, and listed fake sender names, addresses and telephone numbers, according to the statement.

One defendant has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in money laundering and was sentenced to three years, one month in federal prison. Susan Fiorella Ayala-Chavez, a/k/a Pitus, 30, of Lawrenceville was Rainforest Chevron gas station in Lawrenceville.

The remaining eight defendants have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in money laundering and are awaiting sentences:

  • Oscar Gustavo Perez-Bernal, 35, of Atlanta, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at La Tienda and Cocina Linda Vista, which were both located in Chamblee;
  • Itzayana Guadalupe Perez-Bernal, a/k/a Lupe, 24, of Norcross, was an employee at La Tienda;
  • Norma Dominguez, 57, of Atlanta, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at La Veracruzana, which was located in Chamblee;
  • Norma Carrera, 39, of Atlanta, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Hilos y Estambres Teresita, which was located in Chamblee;
  • Victor Perez, 31, of Lawrenceville, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Intercargo, which had offices in Lawrenceville and Marietta;
  • Merli Sandy Tejeda-Bermudez, a/k/a Jorhley Adadlay-Bermudez, 30, of Duluth, was the manager and BSA/compliance officer at Mundo Cargo and RR Latinas, which were both located in Lawrenceville;
  • Daniel Castaneda-Garcia, 32, of Atlanta, Georgia, was the manager and BSA/AML compliance officer at Taqueria el Dany, which was located in Lawrenceville;
  • Lidia Pineda-Altamarino, a/k/a Lily, 33, of Lawrenceville, Georgia.

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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