Colombian National Pleads Guilty of Money Laundering Charges
MAR 30 -- Steven W. Derr, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration for New England and Nora R. Dannehy, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, announced that JUAN MERLANO SALAZAR, 35, of Medellin, Colombia, pleaded guilty today before United States District Judge Mark R. Kravitz in New Haven to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and eleven counts of money laundering.
This matter stems from “Operation Babbling Brook,” a Drug Enforcement Administration-led investigation into suspected money laundering by a Colombian-based organization. According to court documents and statements made in court, the organization employed operatives in the United States and funneled millions of dollars in drug proceeds from the U.S. to Medellin, Colombia. The investigation, which utilized a variety of traditional and sophisticated investigative techniques, including court-authorized interception of international e-mail, disclosed that the money laundering organization used direct deposits of cash into third-party bank accounts, as well as payment of third-party debt obligations to move cash drug proceeds from the New York metropolitan area out of the country. The organization also used “stored value cards,” which function like debit cards and enabled cardholders to deposit U.S. dollars into accounts locally, to be withdrawn later from banks in Medellin as Colombian pesos. The Government has alleged that the scheme resulted in the laundering of more than $7 million in drug proceeds.
Judge Kravitz has scheduled sentencing for June 16, 2010, at which time MERLANO faces a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years on each of the 12 counts, and a fine of up to $6 million.
MERLANO has been detained since his extradition from Colombia in June 2009.
On June 11, 2008, a federal grand jury in Bridgeport returned a Superseding Indictment charging MERLANO and others, including Robert E. Hodgins and the Texas-based business where he served as the Chief Executive Officer and President, Virtual Money, Inc., with money laundering conspiracy and related charges. To date, Francisco Dario Duque, 49, of Medellin, Colombia; Gonzalo Bueno, 72, of Brooklyn, New York; Juan Chavarriaga, 45, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Jose Manotas, 46, of New York, New York, have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from this conspiracy. Each is detained while awaiting sentencing.
Hodgins is being sought by law enforcement. U.S. Attorney Dannehy stressed that an indictment is only a charge and is not evidence of guilt, and each defendant is entitled to a trial at which it will be the Government’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
This matter is being investigated by the Bridgeport Resident Office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation Division.