Suspicions for multi-million dollar real estate investments made by Venezuelans in Miami. Tons of cocaine imported from Mexico and Colombia seized in warehouses in Brooklyn and Queens.
Miami World / AP
The parade of prominent Latin Americans extradited to the United States to face charges in court has been going on for decades.
However, in recent years Miami and New York have positioned themselves as two of the most active districts to investigate and prosecute them, each in its specialty: South Florida prosecutors have focused on money laundering from corruption. , often linked to Venezuelans, and those in New York have set their sights on drug trafficking, often linked to high-ranking Mexican officials.
“It’s really a question of where the best evidence is,” Jodi Avergun, a former prosecutor, told The Associated Press, explaining that while New York is a hub for drugs and the banks where drug money moves, Miami has corrupt Latin Americans. with properties and accounts in Florida. “They spend a lot of time there and they spend a lot of money there.”
With these court cases, the United States wants to make it clear that it does not tolerate the use of its territory for these crimes to be discussed and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect national security and ensure that its laws are respected, wherever they are. that transgress them.
“They don’t want the United States to be a haven for corrupt money,” former South Florida federal prosecutor Curtis Miner told the AP, referring to the reasons the government takes cases to court. “They don’t want the US real estate market or US banks to hide corrupt money or be used to profit from corrupt money.”
The defendants include Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the late President Hugo Chávez’s treasurer, Alejandro Andrade; or to businessmen who, like television mogul Raúl Gorrín, associated with the Venezuelan government to profit from corrupt businesses.
Mexicans are also hunted, such as the drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former attorney general of the Mexican state of Nayarit, Edgar Veytia, or the former secretary of Public Security of that country, Genaro García Luna.
Central Americans are numerous: from Fabio Lobo, son of the former president of Honduras Porfirio Lobo; the former president of Guatemala Alfonso Portillo and Tony Hernández, brother of the current president of Honduras.
Miami is the city chosen by wealthy Latin Americans to spend their vacations or reside permanently. Its geographical proximity to Latin America and the widespread use of Spanish have made it a pole of attraction for Central and South Americans, who keep their money in local banks or make real estate investments.
Since the late 1990s, South Florida has been the favorite cradle of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who left their country fleeing socialism.
Among those who arrived there were also prominent businessmen and former officials who became millionaires conducting fraudulent deals with the Venezuelan government and used Miami banks to launder money with which they bought mansions, boats, private planes and cars.
In South Florida, Andrade was sentenced at the end of 2018 to a decade in prison for having participated in a scandal involving more than 1 billion dollars in bribes along with other Venezuelans, including the banker Gabriel Arturo Jiménez y Gorrín, the owner from Globovisión.
“I take full responsibility for the acts for which I have pleaded guilty,” Andrade told Judge Robin Rosenberg at the time of his sentence. “As treasurer I made very bad decisions that today I regret with all my heart.”
Gorrín remains a fugitive after being accused of paying more than $ 150 million in bribes to Andrade and other Venezuelan officials in exchange for operations at a favorable exchange rate and of hiding profits in luxury properties in Miami and Manhattan.
The tycoon also paid Andrade expenses related to the purchase of a $ 4.35 million yacht, planes and horses.
Throughout his process, Andrade was represented by Miner, who after leaving the prosecution turned to private practice.
“It’s like a snowball,” said former South Florida federal prosecutor Michael Nadler, referring to how Latin American court cases arise and are related to each other.
Miami created a special money laundering investigation unit in 2019 after press reports about South Americans buying apartments at astronomical values, often with cash of dubious origin, thus raising the cost of living for local residents.
In Miami, the notorious case of the “briefcase” was also aired for which the Venezuelan businessman Franklin Durán was sentenced to four years in prison for having concealed the origin of some 800,000 dollars that would have been sent by the Chávez government to the campaign of the by then Argentine president Cristina Fernández.
After serving his sentence, Durán was deported to Venezuela.
In New York, Latin Americans accused of drug trafficking have passed through the elegant courts of the eastern and southern district for years, attracting the attention of Latino media and opening a window to the murky criminal world of countries like Mexico, Colombia, Honduras or Guatemala .
The city is a clear destination for cocaine that comes from Latin America and has offices of many government agencies that collaborate in the investigations. That is why a special unit was created to deal with international drug trafficking.
“The eastern district of New York was probably the first district (in the United States) to focus on international drug trafficking cases,” said Avergun, who was head of the Department of Justice’s Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section.
In addition, prosecutors over time specialize on a specific cartel or a particular drug route and deal with similar witnesses in related cases that end up in the hands of the same judge, the expert said.
“Those cases tend to stay in the same district,” explained the former prosecutor.
The trial of Hernández, accused of drug trafficking, showed the union between the world of drugs and politics in Honduras. One of the witnesses, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, leader of the Los Cachiros cartel, testified that he ordered the deaths of more than 70 people and said he paid bribes to current Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández.
According to prosecutors for the southern district of New York, the Honduran president even received payments, through his brother, from “El Chapo” Guzmán, the most famous Latin American drug trafficker serving a sentence in the United States. After being sentenced to life imprisonment in July 2019, Guzmán failed the process: “There was no justice here.”
Eduardo Balarezo, a former lawyer for “El Chapo,” has criticism of the US justice system.
“The United States has invested in the war on drugs for so long that they are forced to show results,” said the lawyer. “Drug trafficking has not been reduced at all, in fact, greater amounts of drugs are moved now than before Joaquín Guzmán went to trial. So many of these accusations are pure theater, “he added.
Balarezo does not agree with so many Latin Americans ending up in the United States because they end up cooperating with the authorities to receive light sentences.
“They would have received stronger sentences in their own countries,” he said.
García Luna, who served as Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security between 2006 and 2012 with then-President Felipe Calderón, has pleaded not guilty to prosecutors’ accusations that he received millions of dollars from the Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for he could traffic cocaine at ease.
In another high-profile case, prosecutors prosecuted former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested in December in Los Angeles. Mexico considered that not being informed of the investigations violated bilateral agreements and initiated strong diplomatic pressure. Finally, the United States dropped the charges against the military man.
Many of the accused in the United States remain free in Latin America. Maduro has been flagged for terrorism, corruption and drug trafficking even though he knows that his extradition is unlikely, at least for now. The State Department is offering a $ 15 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Whether or not they will be extradited is not something that the US government values at the time of initiating the process, explained Nadler, the former prosecutor who is now a partner in a law firm in Miami. What matters, he said, is that “if they committed a crime, they will be charged.”