Federal authorities arrested at least three people as part of a $27 million scheme known as the "Black Market Peso Exchange," which provided professional money-laundering services to drug traffickers through Houston banks.
Specifically, the culprits are charged with using the various Houston accounts to mask drug proceeds as legitimately earned cash, federal prosecutors said.
The banks are not yet named, aside from one involved in a $90,000 wire transfer to buy an airplane later used to shuttle bulk cash.
Those charged so far include Enrique Morales, 42, who lived in Houston and Guadalajara, Mexico, and was arrested upon entering the United States at Laredo; Willie Whitehurst, 44, of Houston; and Sarah Combs, 48, of Dickinson.
The names of other defendants, both in the United States and Mexico, are being kept secret by prosecutors pending their arrests.
Prosecutors claim the ring picked up money from drugs sales in several cities, including Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., and also had that money dropped off at their headquarters in Houston, which they then deposited in banks.
"Professional money launderers are integral to criminal organizations," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer said Friday in a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.
"According to the indictment, the defendants enabled dangerous narcotics traffickers to access their ill-gotten gains and evade law enforcement."
Morales was a director for the conspiracy and apparently recruited clients who had large amounts of U.S. dollars they wanted converted to Mexican pesos. He is accused of instructing Whitehurst to travel to various cities to pick up the drug proceeds. Combs was an office manager for the organization at an office at 16215 Westheimer, Suite 107, in Houston.
Funds seized 4 times
None of them could be reached for comment.
The indictment describes four instances last year in which money was seized, including $364,810 by Houston police in April; $350,178 and $319,430 in June; $220,998 by police in North Carolina in August; and $319,430 by police in Georgia in November. It does not name anyone charged or convicted with drug trafficking, or point to any specific trafficking organization.
The $27 million would be a fortune to an individual, but considered small compared to the many billions of dollars a year generated by multinational drug cartels.
Money-laundering prosecutions are rare compared to the number of people charged with trafficking drugs, but they get to the heart of some of the biggest problems for traffickers: where to hide and how to spend their riches without drawing heat.
The money-transmitting business operated from October 2009 through September 2011, records show.
Money laundering often involves a complex series of moves aimed at making it difficult to know for sure where earnings originated, as well as make it tough for authorities to prove the funds were gained illegally.
The drug money supposedly was first tucked into bank accounts in the name of "shell companies," owned and controlled by those arrested. The money was then transferred to accounts owned by "retailers" in the United States and Mexico.
In exchange for this, pesos were transferred back into accounts for the defendants' clients.