LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Dozens of defendants are being charged in Los Angeles with allegedly helping to launder millions of dollars in drug trafficking profits for the Sinaloa Cartel and other criminal organizations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced on Friday.
The scheme’s alleged ringleader, Gurkaran Singh Isshpunani, 34, was arrested last month in Buffalo, New York, as he tried to cross the Canadian border, prosecutors said. He was brought to Los Angeles late on Thursday.
Isshpunani is the lead defendant in a federal grand jury indictment charging 22 people with money laundering, conspiracy and operating unlicensed money remitting businesses. Fifteen of the defendants have been arrested. Seven are at large.
The scheme was allegedly global in scale, with operations in Canada, India, the U.S. and Mexico, authorities said. The laundered money is thought to have either been transported to the Sinaloa Cartel — headed by infamous drug lord “El Chapo” — or reinvested to purchase additional narcotics.
Prosecutors allege the network transferred more than $4.5 million in narcotics proceeds and was involved in the trafficking of 29 kilograms of cocaine and about 90 pounds of methamphetamine.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and Internal Revenue Service conducted a four-year federal wiretap investigation into the network’s workings. During that time, authorities seized more than $15 million in U.S. currency, 321 kilograms of cocaine, 98 pounds of methamphetamine, 11 kilograms of ecstasy and nine kilograms of heroin, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Isshpunani allegedly laundered the money using a “hawala” — an alternative method of money remittance that is based on trust and operates outside of traditional banking systems. Through such hawala transactions, only the value of the money is transferred, but not the money itself. According to the indictment, Isshpunani is part of a network of Indian men who move money based on a trust system.
The money laundering conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years in federal prison. Each of the two counts related to the alleged unlicensed money transmitting business carries a maximum of five years, prosecutors said.
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