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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Colombian traffickers find novel way to move millions in U.S. cocaine sales via bank ATMs

Colombian drug traffickers are depositing tons of $20, $50 and $100 bills, in ATM's all across the United States.    (DREAMSTIME/TNS)
By Jay Weaver Miami Herald

MIAMI — It’s been an age-old problem for Colombian drug traffickers: Moving mountains of cash from U.S. cocaine profits back to their country.

The cartels’ latest solution: automated teller machines.

But they aren’t withdrawing money from ATMs; they’re depositing tons of it, in stacks of $20, $50 and $100 bills, all across the United States.

Over the past few years, U.S. authorities say, narco-traffickers have recruited a number of Colombians to fly to Miami and set up phony businesses with corporate bank accounts. With a bit of wit, they named one local company “PJ Cleaning.”

The Colombian recruits then traveled to various U.S. cities to pick up duffel bags of bulk cash from cocaine sales, with each depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars at ATMs into the bank accounts of the fake companies. Those businesses, in turn, wired millions through financial networks in the United States and abroad to the Colombian cartels, authorities say.

Federal investigators and prosecutors say they’ve been on to them. This week, at least eight Colombians were charged with money laundering conspiracies, including some who made their first appearances in Miami federal court. Agents with the FBI and Homeland Securities Investigations have had their eyes on them, not only because they’ve been moving huge sums of cash through ATMs but because bank security cameras have captured their images while they’ve make the brazen deposits.

Richard Gregorie, a retired Miami federal prosecutor who took down notorious Colombian kingpins and associates, said that during the era of the cocaine cowboys the Colombian traffickers relied mostly on the “Black Market Peso Exchange” to convert cocaine dollars into pesos, creating paper trails in South Florida by using local businesses as intermediaries to wire their profits back home.

“This is no different than that; they just found another way to move the money,” Gregorie said in an interview Thursday. “They think of every way possible to do it to avoid the law. They’re usually way ahead of law enforcement.”

Federal authorities, he said, “need to start picking these guys up and getting them to cooperate so they can work their way up the line.”

That’s exactly what South Florida investigators and prosecutors are trying to do. The latest arrests stem from an initial federal case last year involving two Miami-area companies — P&J Maintenance Group LLC and PJ Cleaning LLC — located at 18000 NW 24th Ave. Those bogus businesses and others set up at the direction of Colombian narco-traffickers have been at the center of a variety of multimillion-dollar ATM laundering schemes.

The two businesses were operating as unlicensed remittance companies, according to charges brought by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Gonzalez. The Colombian behind the businesses: Daniel Gustavo Martinez Yepes, a cartel minion who pleaded guilty and was sentenced in April to one and a half years in prison.

According to an FBI criminal affidavit, the two companies had no employees and did no business, but between October 2022 and November 2023 about $7.6 million was funneled through their bank accounts in the U.S. to Colombia. Martinez was responsible for moving a chunk of it.

Over just two days in July 2023, Martinez himself was captured on a security camera depositing $265,090 at Bank of America ATMs into the corporate accounts of the two Miami companies, the FBI affidavit says. On July 6 and 7, Martinez made 22 deposits ranging from $400 to $30,250 at two ATM locations, the Black Rock Turnpike in Connecticut and the Perimeter Center near Atlanta.

He kept track of each deposit and the bill denominations in a dark, hard-cover spiral ledger with the numbers “2019” on the front. Most of his deposits were “structured” in amounts of less than $10,000 to avoid bank reporting requirements, but Martinez made even larger deposits while flouting the law.

“The footage shows Martinez both driving up to Bank of America ATMs and walking up to others and making deposits,” according to the affidavit. “Martinez is seen pulling out large bundles [of] cash from a duffel bag. He is then seen utilizing the mobile phone wallet feature on a cell phone before inserting cash into the ATM.”

FBI agents caught up with Martinez last November at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport upon his return flight from Medellin, Colombia. He had his ledger on him.

According to the affidavit, Martinez admitted that he collaborated with a handler in Colombia on making large bulk-cash pickups in multiples cities across the country. The Colombian collaborator provided photos of the people delivering the bags of money and of Martinez to both sides so they could recognize each other. Then, the affidavit says, Martinez deposited the cash at ATMs into the bank accounts of the two Miami companies.

Martinez told the FBI agents during the airport interview that he reviewed his ledger and said he was involved in pickups and deposits totaling about $350,000 in Connecticut, Georgia and Illinois. He also said he was paid $3,000 for the pick-ups, plus $2,000 for traveling expenses. However, he was reluctant to talk about his handler in Colombia, identified as “co-conspirator 1” in the affidavit.

At least eight other suspects have been implicated in similar alleged money-laundering schemes as Martinez, with most in federal custody in Miami.

According to another FBI affidavit, Geniver Andres Hernandez Arias flew from Bogota to New York City in July 2023 and returned via Miami to Colombia the following month. During her visit in the United States, Hernandez was caught on security cameras making at least $350,000 in cash deposits at Bank of America ATMs in New Hampshire, Virginia and Massachusetts into the corporate accounts of the two Miami businesses, P & J Maintenance and PJ Cleaning.

“The footage shows Hernandez standing [at] and driving up to ATMs in multiple vehicles,” the affidavit says. “On one occasion, Hernandez was observed using two different cellphones while standing at an ATM. On another occasion, in the front passenger seat of one of Hernandez’s vehicles, you can see a plastic bag with loose cash hanging out of the bag.”

Other suspects recently charged with laundering Colombian cocaine profits through ATMs in the United States: Edison Zapata Sanchez, Diovany Gutierrez, Gabriel Antonio Martinez, Paola Andrea Sanchez Moreno and Andrew Shawn Fermin. Two other Colombian cartel associates are being charged along with Fermin.