Federal prosecutors in San Diego announced Thursday they have indicted 75 people nationwide, including 40 in San Diego, in a massive drugs and money operation that interim U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman called the biggest money laundering investigation ever in San Diego.
The defendants laundered drug proceeds from the Sinaloa cartel for years, Braverman said at a news conference at the federal building in downtown San Diego announcing the wide-ranging operation. He said the network was responsible for laundering tens of millions of dollars in drug profits in the past three years.
Investigators have seized $6 million in cash as a result of a three-year probe undertaken by a long roster of federal and local law enforcement under the FBI's Cross Border Violence Task Force, as well as hundreds of pounds of drugs like methamphetamine, fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
The leader of the operation, 32-year-old Jose Roberto Lopez-Albarran, was arrested in San Diego on Feb. 9 and has been in custody ever since. He made an initial court appearance Thursday afternoon in federal court.
Another 21 people who were named in a series of four related indictments handed down by a San Diego grand jury are also in custody, officials said. The balance of the 19 San Diego defendants are under indictment but remain fugitives.
While the investigation was centered in San Diego and has the majority of defendants, Braverman said another 35 people were charged for their role in the money laundering and drug sales in federal courts in Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas and Washington. At least 25 of those defendants were in custody as of Thursday.
The leader of the organization was Lopez, who authorities said oversaw a large network of people dubbed "money movers" who shuttled huge amounts of cash around the country, picking up drug sale proceeds for eventual transfer to Mexico.
The mover stashed the cash in hidden compartments of vehicles, or in cash-stuffed duffel bags, luggage, even shoe boxes. They picked up the cash in parking lots, hotels and restaurants in San Diego and other cities large and small — Dayton, Ohio, Los Angeles, and Lexington, Ky.
The cash was then deposited in banks using so-called "funnel accounts." Such accounts, a tool of money-laundering criminal groups, are set up at U.S. banks that can receive deposits from multiple states. The money is deposited in chunks of less than $10,000 — the threshold over which banks are required to file official reports with regulators.
The money would then be wire transferred to Mexican bank accounts for bogus Mexican companies, which were actually businesses controlled by the organization. Another co-defendant, Manuel Reynoso Garcia, orchestrated the money-laundering activities.
The 62-year-old Garcia was charged last month in federal court here with money laundering conspiracy and other charges. He has pleaded not guilty. Court records show he was released on Jan. 31 on a $25,000 bond and ordered to remain on home detention and wear a GPS device to track his movements.
The investigation involved undercover work by investigators from the District Attorney's office, sheriff and Chula Vista police to infiltrate the organization, Braverman said. Their work identified both the money movers and, through them, a network of drug trafficking cells across the country, according to authorities.
The organization used code words as well as WhatsApp, a messaging application, to communicate about the money movements and transfers.
"We have siphoned the cash and life out of a San Diego-based international money laundering organization with ties to the Sinaloa cartel," Braverman said.