By Dustin Brown
Federal agents arrested 14 Queens residents last week for allegedly laundering more than $1.5 million in purported drug money which they sent to Colombia while creating false records to obscure the destination, authorities said.
The arrests came as part of an ongoing federal investigation into the money remitter industry, which sends money from a customer to a designated location – a service targeting recent immigrants that is also favored by drug traffickers, U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf said.
“The sale of narcotics generates huge amounts of bulk cash that the traffickers have to launder,” said Mauskopf, who announced the charges last Thursday. “These defendants made the money remitter industry a tool of the drug trade to accomplish that end, and in the process transformed an industry designed to help hardworking immigrants into an illegal enterprise.”
Federal authorities charged 31 people in the 18-month investigation dubbed Operation Wiredrill, which targeted storefront operations in Queens and Long Island. If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the laundered funds, whichever is greater.
Agents arrested Queens residents from Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside, Flushing, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Corona and South Richmond Hill.
Undercover agents and informants posed as drug traffickers to bring more than $1.5 million in currency to money remitter stores, where they offered cash to merchants in exchange for laundering the money, which they described as proceeds from drug sales, authorities said.
The remitters would then falsify documentation to obscure where the money was going and avoid federal reporting requirements, making the business from the drug launderers look like different transactions from multiple legitimate customers, authorities said.
For wire transfers, the remitters would create fraudulent invoices identifying family and friends receiving the money in Colombia – when in reality it was wired to the drug sources, according to authorities.
The defendants also provided thousands of money orders in $500 increments, which they issued five at a time to avoid identification requirements with the payee name left blank. The agents would pay a fee as well as a tip when they picked up the orders, authorities said.
The investigation was carried out to curb a recent resurgence in the use of remitters to launder drug money, an activity that dropped precipitously after an investigation in the mid-1990s led to the convictions of 32 people, Mauskopf said.
Queens residents arrested in the operation were Marta Ochoa, 40, of Jackson Heights; Adriana Orjuela, 35, of Sunnyside; Heinz Schroeder, 49, of Maspeth; Francisco Diaz, 41, of Long Island City; Carmenza Cardona, 42, of Long Island City; Juan Toribio, 27, of East Elmhurst; Alen Dayekh, 39, of Jackson Heights; Janeth Martinez, 38, of Woodside; Hector Matos, 47, of South Richmond Hill; Juan Chamilco, 40, of Jackson Heights; Willie Fernandez, 25, of Flushing; Milagros Fernandez Vargas, 26, of Flushing; Jesus Ramirez, 37, of Jackson Heights; and Corona resident, identified as Mauricio, whose last name and birth date are unknown.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.