Sinaloa cartel bosses had a problem. They were holding a hostage and needed to get the $140,000 ransom his family agreed to pay from the United States to Mexico in the form of pesos.
Worried a wire transfer would alert authorities, the drug traffickers turned to an unlikely business: Q.T. Fashion, a wholesaler of maternity clothing in downtown Los Angeles.
The hostage’s family was directed to give the ransom money to the business, which used it to pay for clothing shipments to a Sinaloa importer, federal officials said. The importer then paid for the goods in pesos — to the cartel.
Federal agents raided Q.T Fashion and numerous other businesses in the downtown fashion district Wednesday, cracking down on a scheme that cartels are increasingly relying on to get their profits — from drug sales, kidnappings and other illegal activities — back to Mexico, authorities said.
Nine people were arrested in raids targeting 75 locations, and $90 million was seized — $70 million in cash. In one condo, agents found $35 million stuffed in banker boxes. At a mansion in Bel-Air, they discovered $10 million in duffel bags.
Federal officials said they believe that the drug organizations have used businesses throughout Los Angeles to convert their vast earnings into pesos, turning the city into a hub for “trade-based money laundering.”
Such schemes and others were used widely during the Colombian cocaine trade in Florida in the 1980s. Now federal agents view Los Angeles as the new Miami.
“Los Angeles has become the epicenter of narco-dollar money laundering with couriers regularly bringing duffel bags and suitcases full of cash to many businesses,” said Robert E. Dugdale, the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of federal criminal prosecutions in Los Angeles.
Agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement infiltrated peso brokerages operating in Los Angeles, authorities said Wednesday. They said they focused on the fashion district because it was a concentrated area where taking drug money had become routine.
The undercover officers went to storefronts with bundles of cash, sometimes shrink-wrapped in grocery bags, one time splattered with what looked like blood, authorities said, noting the agents even mentioned that the money came from drug trafficking.
No one blinked at taking it, they said.
The FBI came became involved when the kidnapping victim’s family notified them of what was going on. The IRS examined the methods that businesses used to flout its reporting requirements for large cash transactions.
The practice of laundering drug profits through legitimate trade has dramatically increased since Mexico restricted the use of American dollars in 2010 by limiting deposits of U.S. currency at banks, brokerages and exchange houses.
Cartels can no longer have bulk shipments of cash sent home to be spent and deposited as they pleased.
Black market peso brokers filled the gap. The brokers contact legitimate Mexican importers who want to buy goods in Los Angeles.
If an importer wants to buy $30,000 worth of shirts the broker directs a drug contact in the United States to pay the bill to a shirt wholesaler in dollars. The importer in Mexico then pays the broker, in pesos, who takes a cut and pays the rest to a cartel.
The State Department estimates drug trafficking organizations send between $19 billion and $29 billion to Mexico annually from the United States.
The flow of cheap goods from the Pacific Rim through the county’s two ports, as well as Los Angeles’ proximity to the border, makes the area a natural center for the black market peso exchange.