The bus wheezes, as if relieved, when the driver turns the ignition key after a 1,400 kilometer journey that began in Ciudad Obregón (Mexico). Through the windows, Hispanic faces peek out, scrutinizing a polygonal landscape, cemented with warehouses, lots, and showrooms.
They are in the Fashion District, in depressed downtown Los Angeles. Despite the name, it is not a glamorous place to go for shopping or sightseeing. Here you come to close deals. Tons of wholesale clothing and jewelry are dispatched daily, mostly from Asia and generally ending up in Latin America.
A voice resounds inside the vehicle, repeating directions and warnings, and about thirty people are coming out of the door: kids dressed in T-shirts, caps, and jeans; fitted women in lycra; and guys in plaid shirts and ranch looks.
It takes them a few minutes to scatter through the wholesale stores, where they pay in cash dozens of boxes of shoes, bags full of skirts, baby clothes, pants, jewelry... And in less than two hours they are back at the highway, heading to the border.
Behind this daily scene, the FBI, the DEA and at least five federal prosecutors have identified what they call the "epicenter of laundering", the place through which one of the techniques most used by drug trafficking in the United States is channeled. last years. This is a mechanism that is by no means new, but that some cartels, like the one in Sinaloa, are turning into an industry.
“Colombians used it a lot in their day and it returned in 2010, when in Mexico they began to make more controls to enter or pay with dollars. It is very complicated to demonstrate and very simple to carry out. The dollars with which they pay for the merchandise come from the drugs they sell on the streets of the United States. But later, when the clothes or jewelry they buy here are distributed to stores on the other side of the border, the money is totally clean and also in Mexican pesos," Vijar Rathi, a DEA special agent in Los Angeles, explained by phone. .
Last fall, US authorities launched a cinematographic operation in the Fashion District. About 1,000 agents from various agencies, accompanied by local forces, stormed some 75 stores, houses, and warehouses, arresting nine people and making off with about $90 million in cash.
Photos that federal agencies distributed to the press showed cardboard boxes overflowing with $100 bills. "The intention was to send a strong message to the merchants who sell merchandise without controls and who, consciously or unconsciously, collaborate with the laundering of drug trafficking and are one more link in that business," an FBI spokesperson explained to this newspaper.
A few weeks later, El Confidencial was able to verify that the businesses were still open and their owners were on the street, some in front of the counter of their businesses, angry and demanding the money that the police had confiscated from them.
Business as usual
Wide open were, for example, the doors of QT Maternity, a wholesale store specializing in children's clothing, whose Korean owners presented themselves as the real victims of the police operation.
“We weren't doing anything that other merchants here weren't doing. Many stores operate with large sums of cash because we sell a large quantity of clothing. It's easy to accumulate $150,000 like the ones the police took from here. We cannot know the origin of the money that a client brings in,” said one of the family business clerks who agreed to speak in exchange for not being identified by her real name.
Two streets further south is Fina Moda, another of the businesses inspected by the Police. “I have many Mexican clients, but I don't do anything illegal. I always ask them questions to see if they say anything suspicious, I report what I have to report and I ask them for documents,” said its owner, also Asian.
According to the FBI and DEA investigation, QT Maternity sold clothes to Maria Ferre SA, a business in Culiacán (Sinaloa) related to the Sinaloa cartel and whose three owners, all Mexicans, now have an arrest warrant.
The investigators believe that the cartels themselves control, or are even indirect owners of the shops where, already in Mexico, merchandise imported from the US is sold and paid for with the money from coca, heroin or pot.
And in the indictments, as often happens, ties with the world of politics or with local Mexican authorities soon emerge. For example, one of the three suspected of organizing the plot that bought at QT Maternity is Luis Ignacio Orozco, a former politician from the National Action Party (PAN) who worked in the Social Development Secretariat (Sedesol) during the government of the then President Felipe Calderon.
Angela Scott, federal prosecutor in charge of the case, confirmed to this newspaper that the three main suspects are unaccounted for. "Yes, we believe they are in Mexico," she said.
The real people responsible for these washing operations never appear in the Fashion District. And if they do, it's not to buy. The Police, for their part, can't do much more than demand that local merchants exercise tighter control over their sales.
With the law in hand, they are only obliged to report to the authorities transactions over $10,000, a containment barrier that drug traffickers have no difficulty jumping over.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to distribute the drug money among dozens of people, paid “ants” who make individual purchases worth up to $9,999. If they can't get enough in the US, buses are chartered from Mexico loaded with bogus tourists, returned immigrants or temporary workers. What in the narco jargon is called an “ant operation”.
In an attempt to tighten the fence on these practices, the Treasury Department on October 2 of last year established stricter control over 200 businesses, almost half within the Fashion District, companies that are now required to report any sale over $3,000.
“But it doesn't work. The bill never stops,” says Octavio, an immigrant without papers who has worked in wholesale stores for 25 years. “Here you have always paid with briefcases full of bills because the bill is always moving, whether it comes from drugs, extortion or anything. Here he has spent his whole life laundering money," he details.
Between warehouses, cardboard boxes and trucks, mountains of cash accumulate with which the employees soon become familiar."Among the owners there are also honest people, there is everything, but generally nobody cares to know where the money comes from. I have never seen the Koreans, for example, make problems for people who pay in cash. The Police carry out operations, make noise from time to time, sales drop for fear for a few months and then everything again returns to normality”, concludes Octavio.
The authorities themselves are aware of this. “When we do something of the magnitude (of what we did in the fall) in an industry where the cartels have invested so heavily, we know that we cripple their business a little bit. The question is for how long," admitted Jere Miles, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.