FBI agents posing as crooks have "laundered" $200 million in illegal drug money and secretely videotaped alleged members of four major narcotic rings in southern Florida during the last two years in an effort to trace the rings' leaders.
Indictments and arrest complaints made public yesterday named 61 persons, most of them Colombian nationals, on various drug charges. By late yesterday, 28 of those wanted had been arrested, according to Welton Merry, spokesman for the FBI office in Miami.
Two of the Colombians, identified by the FBI as top money handlers for the rings, were held on bail of $30 million each, and bonds for some others were set at $15 million each, authorities said.
Authorities believe some of the suspects still at large are out of the country, Merry said.
Attorney General William French Smith has announced that he wants the FBI to aid the Drug Enforcement Administration in the fight against drug trafficking. He said of the undercover operation, "It was excellent strategy to zero in on the laundering process. Money is the lifeblood of this dirty business."
Legitimizing drug profits has been a major problem for the booming narcotics business in south Florida and for law enforcement authorities.
Customers in jeans and T-shirts have carried suitcases full of cash into Miami area banks for deposit countless times in recent years. Because deposits of more than $10,000 must be reported to the Treasury and the cash is dangerous and unwieldy to transport, groups of professional money launderers have formed to handle the business.
Atlee Wampler, U.S. attorney in Miami, said he felt the success of the FBI's undercover laundry, known as Operation Bancoshare, would disrupt the area's drug rings. He said several other illegal laundering operations are believed to be operating in south Florida.
"This is a highly regimented, vertically organized industry," Wampler said. "They've got communications operators, off-loaders for ships, and many others, including launderers."
By the end of the day yesterday, 58 accounts totaling almost $10 million in 21 banks had been seized, Wampler said. In addition, $1 million in cash was taken in one arrest, and agents seized six kilos of cocaine and $2 million in property, including a 4,800-acre ranch with a landing strip.
About 300 FBI and DEA agents were making the arrests, the FBI said.
Among those arrested was Orlando Arrebola, a Cuban exile and former vice president of the Continental National Bank of Miami. He was charged with travel in aid of illegal interstate and foreign commerce and drew a $5 million bond.
FBI spokesman Merry said the FBI used the cooperation of Southeast Bank Co. of Miami and introductions by an informant to set up a company called CRV Associates.
Two English-speaking and two Spanish-speaking FBI agents ran the company. Customers were charged a fee, usually less than 1 per cent of the cash transaction, to launder the money through Miami area banks.
At times, a customer would bring in $1 million in cash and leave with nothing but the undercover agent'sf promise that he later would receive a cashier's check or a wire transfer. "We were crooks like them. They had to trust us," Merry said.