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Home / News / Crime / DOJ: Sinaloa cartel laundered money through Chinese underground banking in LA area

DOJ: Sinaloa cartel laundered money through Chinese underground banking in LA area

by Staff
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The Justice Department Tuesday announced a 10-count superseding indictment charging Los Angeles-based associates of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel with conspiring with money-laundering groups linked to Chinese underground banking to launder drug trafficking proceeds. During the conspiracy, more than $50 million in drug proceeds flowed between the Sinaloa Cartel associates and Chinese underground money exchanges, DOJ said.

Following close coordination with the Justice Department, Chinese and Mexican law enforcement informed United States authorities that those countries recently arrested fugitives named in the superseding indictment who fled the United States after they were initially charged last year.

The multi-year investigation into this conspiracy—dubbed “Operation Fortune Runner”—resulted in a superseding indictment returned on April 4 and unsealed on Monday charging a total of 24 defendants with one count of conspiracy to aid and abet the distribution of cocaine and methamphetamine, one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments, and one count of conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business. 

The superseding indictment alleges that a Sinaloa Cartel-linked money laundering network collected and, with help from a San Gabriel Valley-based money transmitting group with links to Chinese underground banking, processed large amounts of drug proceeds in U.S. currency in the Los Angeles area. They then allegedly concealed their drug trafficking proceeds and made the proceeds generated in the United States accessible to cartel members in Mexico and elsewhere.

Lead defendant Edgar Joel Martinez-Reyes, 45, of East Los Angeles, and others allegedly used a variety of methods to hide the money’s source, including trade-based money laundering, “structuring” assets to avoid federal financial reporting requirements, and the purchase of cryptocurrency.

Twenty of the individuals charged in the superseding indictment are expected to be arraigned in the U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles in the coming weeks, including one who was arraigned on Monday.

“Dangerous drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine are destroying people’s lives but drug traffickers only care about their profits,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “To protect our community, therefore, it is essential that we go after the sophisticated, international criminal syndicates that launder the drug money.” 

“Drug traffickers generate immense amounts of cash through their illicit operations. This case is a prime example of Chinese money launderers working hand in hand with drug traffickers to try to legitimize profits generated by drug activities,” said Chief Guy Ficco of IRS Criminal Investigation. 

As part of this investigation, law enforcement has seized approximately $5 million in narcotics proceeds, 302 pounds of cocaine, 92 pounds of methamphetamine, 3,000 Ecstasy pills, 44 pounds of psilocybin (magic mushrooms), numerous ounces of ketamine, three semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines, and eight semi-automatic handguns.

According to DOJ, the Sinaloa Cartel is largely responsible for the massive influx of fentanyl into the United States over the past approximately eight years, and for the accompanying violence and deaths that have afflicted communities on both sides of the border. 

According to the superseding indictment, from October 2019 to October 2023, members and operatives of the Sinaloa Cartel imported large quantities of narcotics, including fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine, into the United States, generating huge sums of drug cash proceeds in U.S. dollars.

In January 2021, Martinez-Reyes allegedly traveled to Mexico to meet with Sinaloa Cartel members to strike a deal with money remitters with links to Chinese underground banking to launder drug trafficking proceeds in the United States. After the deal was struck, the Sinaloa Cartel—through their connections and associates—distributed cocaine, methamphetamine, and other narcotics, generating U.S. dollars as drug proceeds.

Martinez-Reyes and other conspirators allegedly then delivered the currency—frequently in amounts of hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars in cash—to other members of the Chinese underground money exchange and remitting organizations to be laundered for a fee. The remitting organizations possessed large amounts of U.S. currency and could help wealthy Chinese nationals evade China’s currency controls.

The money remitters allegedly disposed of the drug proceeds by either delivering United States currency directly to their money exchange customers or by purchasing real or personal property, including luxury goods and cars to be shipped to China. Additionally, the remitters also moved illicit drug proceeds through cryptocurrency transactions. They also allegedly used a variety of traditional methods to place the funds into the traditional banking system such as purchasing cashier’s checks, or “structuring,” that is, depositing small amounts at a time into bank accounts opened for this purpose to avoid banks from reporting large cash deposits to the U.S. government.

The remaining seven counts charge individual defendants with crimes such as possession of pound quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine, structuring funds to avoid federal reporting requirements placed on banks, and one count of assault with a deadly weapon on a federal officer.

If convicted of all charges, each defendant faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum penalty of life in prison.

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