6 Charged in Scheme to Launder Drug Money at San Diego Banks

Times Staff Writer

A federal grand jury has charged six people--including an 80-year-old woman and a Bank of America customer investment officer--with concealing $36 million in suspected drug money in San Diego area financial institutions, according to an indictment unsealed Monday.

The 20-count indictment is the latest result of an ongoing nationwide crackdown on narcotics traffickers through investigations of sophisticated "money-laundering" schemes.

Money laundering is a method used by drug traffickers and others to legitimize illegal profits by using the money in various legal financial transactions. Money-laundering schemes are vital to drug-traffickers, U.S. authorities say, because without them traffickers have no place to put the large volumes of cash generated by their illicit enterprises.

In the San Diego case, the U.S. Attorney's office here charged that between January, 1985, and February, 1986, the six suspects laundered about $36 million in suspected drug money through the use of two area banks and a money exchange house in San Ysidro. Federal officials say that San Ysidro, which houses dozens of currency exchange houses handling large volumes of cash, has emerged as a hotbed for the laundering money generated by the lucrative Latin American drug trade.

The indictment charges that some of the defendants would receive the suspected narcotics proceeds from unnamed individuals at pre-arranged points in San Diego and Orange counties, and would exchange much of the money for checks at Blue House Financial Inc., a San Ysidro currency exchange. The funds would eventually be deposited in accounts at Bank of America's Coronado branch and the California Commerce Bank in San Diego.

Federal authorities said the financial institutions cooperated in the investigation, and no wrongdoing has been alleged against the banks.

U.S. authorities have not identified the ultimate recipients of the money. But officials say that many checks drawn on the various accounts were negotiated in Panama and Colombia. Some funds were transmitted to unidentified persons in the United States and other nations, according to U.S. officials.

In return for their efforts, the indictment alleges, five of the defendants received a commission of 5% of the $36 million, or about $1.8 million.

The indictment charged that five of the suspects bribed Guillermina Watson, a customer investment officer at Bank of America's Coronado branch. Watson, 55, Chilean-born naturalized citizen and a 25-year employee of Bank of America, allegedly helped to facilitate various transactions by the other suspects. Watson, who lives in Ramona, has been suspended from her bank duties pending resolution of the charges, a bank spokesman said.

All six suspects, including Watson, were charged with various violations of currency reporting statutes, conspiracy and causing financial institutions to file false currency transaction reports.

The reports, required by the Bank Secrecy Act for transactions of more than $10,000, are the prime tool used by federal prosecutors to crack alleged money-laundering schemes.

In connection with the case, U.S. authorities say they seized about $680,000 in cash, much of it from eight accounts at the Bank of America.

On Monday, pleas of innocent were entered in U.S. District Court in San Diego by Watson and two other suspects, Marguerite de Coninck, an 80-year-old Belgian citizen, and her daughter, Beatriz Mejia-Coninck, 44, a Colombian citizen who was living legally in California. Watson is free on $100,000 bond, while Marguerite de Coninck and her daughter are being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego. A U.S. magistrate has denied bail to Coninck and Mejia-Coninck.

Another suspect, Pablo Galindo-Cabrer of Las Vegas, also is in federal custody but has yet to enter a plea. He is the ex-husband of Beatriz Mejia-Coninck, officials said.

Two other suspects, who are fugitives, are Cecilia Mejia-Rojo, 45, a Colombian citizen who is believed to have returned to Colombia and who is the sister of Beatriz Mejia-Coninck, and Christian Galindo, 23, a Colombian citizen and son of Beatriz Mejia-Coninck and Pablo Galindo-Cabrer.

All defendants face five-year jail terms and fines of $250,000 on each count of the 20-count indictment.

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