May 12, 2013
Los Zetas is considered the most violent drug cartel in Mexico, using terror and brute force to impose its will.
In a country renowned for drug-related brutality, the cartel distinguished itself last year in San Juan by leaving 49 headless, handless and footless bodies near a spray-painted message at the entrance gates: “100% Los Zetas,” a sign from the cartel that it owned the city.
Ronald and Esther Winter, a retired Clearwater couple in their 70s who used to own construction businesses, have never been in trouble with the law. Ronald Winter says they raised their three children with strong morals, were part of the PTA and have worked hard to make contributions to the community.
Esther Winter was past president of the local symphony. A seat in Row H of Ruth Eckerd Hall bears their names, a testament to their determination to donate to good causes.
Last year, Los Zetas and the Winters briefly crossed paths, though the Winters didn’t know it at the time.
Even now, they have trouble believing what the Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and local police are telling them — that they unwittingly helped the Mexican cartel try to launder dirty money.
The amount: $3.6 million.
The cartel’s message to the Winters came from an old family friend offering an investment opportunity.
As the couple told investigators, their longtime friend, Manuel Gonzalez in Guadalajara, offered them $50,000 for their help transferring money for Mexican businesses seeking to avoid new taxes in that country.
Winter told The Tampa Tribune that his wife went to college with Gonzalez’s ex-wife. Their families have been friends for years. “They’re good, quality people,” he said. “He’s a good, quality guy.”
Gonzalez, 80, said he feels terrible about what happened. “I goofed,” he said in a telephone interview from Mexico.
He said he owns a translation business and was circulating his business cards at a conference in Mexico. One of the people who got his card was Rodolfo Fernandez Rodriguez.
After the conference, Gonzalez said, Fernandez called and asked if he knew of anyone trustworthy in the United States who could provide financial advice for his business, Karen Lite. Fernandez told him about some money in a bank, Banca Mifel, that would be transmitted to the United States for an investment.
Gonzalez said he asked around and was told Banca Mifel was a reputable bank.
“I spoke to Ron about it and I said, ‘Ron, it is what Rodolfo told me. It’s a company. I checked out the bank. The bank is clear.”
Fernandez asked if Winter could open a checking account in Karen Lite’s name, and Gonzalez said he told Fernandez, “I’m sure he could if they had the proper credentials.”
Gonzalez said he thought the transaction was a legitimate business deal that could help his good friend get money for his retirement.
“I was trying to be Ron’s friend,” he said. “He’s my best friend. I’ll do anything for him.”
Gonzalez said he had no idea Fernandez was connected to drug cartels.
Neither did the Winters. When they went into their local bank where they have done business for more than 20 years, they asked for advice on how to set up an account for their anticipated investment money.
Authorities who investigated the case say the couple were unaware that they were about to help Los Zetas try to launder $3.6 million by moving the money around and then sending it back to Mexico.
“The investigators that were involved in this believe that they were duped,” said John Joyce, the special agent in charge of the Tampa office of the Secret Service, which investigated the case with Clearwater Police.
Winter said he was “an innocent bystander.”
“My record is clean,” he said. “I have a good family throughout Florida and throughout the north in Ohio.”
Winter thinks it was his friend Gonzalez who was used.
“I don’t think I was duped by my friend,” Winter said. “I think he was duped, and he passed it on to me unbeknownst. … He thought he was doing the right thing for me. Otherwise, he would never have brought it to my attention. He would never have gotten me involved. If anybody was duped, it was him.”
The sale of illegal drugs generates $400 billion a year around the globe, according to retired federal agent Robert Mazur, an expert in drug cartels and money laundering.
To be able to use the ill-gotten profits, drug traffickers use a variety of means — run it through financial systems, blend it with other money — to launder the cash.
“Basically, you’re trying to lose the stink in the blood from the money,” said Mazur, a retired federal agent who authored “The Infiltrator,” about his undercover experience posing as a drug cartel money launderer.
Drug traffickers have been known to use innocent people and the aged, Mazur said. Last year, for example, Reuters reported that Mexican drug cartels were circulating help-wanted ads seeking people to drive cars across the border. The would-be employees were told they were working in sales vehicle delivery or currency exchange. They didn’t know illegal drugs were hidden in the cars. In the ’90s, cartels hired elderly people to smuggle drugs in recreational vehicles, Mazur said.
Although more than 75 percent of drug money is in U.S. dollars, Mazur said, American law enforcement seizes a tiny fraction, no more than $1 billion a year. “We only catch the dumb ones,” Mazur said.
Referring to the attempt to use the Winters to launder cartel money, Mazur said, “It was dumb.”
“This was really kind of naïve for the people to think $3.6 million going through the accounts of individuals who don’t have high net worth is not going to draw attention,” Mazur said. “People do stupid things when they’re trying to clean hot money.”
Mazur said using a neighborhood branch of Bank of America in Florida was bound to call attention to the money transfers.
“Normally speaking, you would want to move this money through offices of a Bank of America that routinely handles cross-border” transactions, he said. “You want to be one of the trees in the forest. You don’t want to be a tree in the desert. This was the tree in the desert. It was easy to see.”
Mazur, who called the scheme “amateurish,” said whoever cooked up the idea in Mexico is likely in a lot of trouble with the cartel.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said, “that whoever’s responsible for this is going to pay either with services or with money or their life.”
According to a Secret Service affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, the couple walked into their bank branch on Dec. 8. Ronald Winter said he expected a $3.2 million wire transfer from Mexico and asked how quickly he could transfer most of the money into a new account and $50,000 into his personal account.
When asked about the type of business this involved, Winter said, “investments.”
Before Dec. 11, when the first wire transfer arrived, the Winters’ account had a balance of $31.13. The account’s average balance was $100.
On Dec. 11, nearly $3.6 million was wired into the account from a Mexican bank. Over the next 16 days, the Winters transferred parts of the money into different accounts, some in their name and some in other banks.
On Dec. 17, an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration approached the DEA in Mexico saying he had information about a large financial transaction that had happened Dec. 11, according to the affidavit, which was filed to support the U.S. government’s seizure of the majority of the money.
The DEA informant said the transaction was facilitated by two Mexican citizens, Victor Manuel Albo, whom the DEA has identified as someone who smuggles money for drug cartels, and Rodolfo Fernandez Rodriguez, who works with Albo.
According to the affidavit, Albo wires drug proceeds out of South America into United States accounts and then into “clean” accounts in South America to make them appear legitimate and make it difficult for law enforcement to trace and seize the money.
The DEA said the agency uncovered evidence that Fernandez had said he and Albo had wired Los Zetas’ money into the Winters’ account.
The Secret Service later investigated the people and entities receiving the money from the Winters’ account, including Karen Lite. “Specifically, the entities from and to whom the money was transferred appear to have no legitimate business presence,” the affidavit states.
In addition, according to the affidavit, Gonzalez told Ronald Winter to use $165,000 to purchase a Cessna 210 airplane.
“The funneling of money from Mexico through bank accounts in the United States and into the purchase of airplanes is consistent with the modus operandi of Mexican drug cartels,” the affidavit states. “Drug syndicates have used Bank of America accounts to funnel funds specifically to purchase planes to transport cocaine.”
Another $50,000 of the money was used in an attempt to buy a racehorse, according to the affidavit, something else that is “consistent with the modus operandi of Los Zetas.”
On Dec. 27, Bank of America froze the money and contacted Clearwater Police Detective Douglas Munson.
Munson calls it “a once-in-a-career case.”
“How often does a detective in Clearwater, Florida, come in contact with drug cartels in Mexico and get involved in the seizure of a large amount of money?” Munson said.
Munson said he called the Winters and set up a meeting. The couple, he said, were “very forthcoming, very eager to get the whole situation taken care of.”
“Initially, they just thought they were helping out a friend,” Munson said. “Once we identified the possibility it was related to a drug cartel in Mexico, they were shocked, very shocked.”
So was Gonzalez.
When Winter told him the bank had frozen the money, “I almost died. I was very, very sorry,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he has not heard from Fernandez since the money was frozen. He said he tried to call Fernandez, but the number was disconnected. He said he has provided information, through Winter, to detectives in the United States.
“The money’s lost,” Gonzalez said. “The U.S. government has the money now.”
He said Fernandez has not contacted him.
“They were caught,” he said. “I’m glad. … Of course, I’m sorry about Ron, but I’m glad they were caught.”
Investigators say they were able to recover all but $450,000 of the money.
Munson said he regards the couple as victims of the drug cartel.
“They were just normal, working retirees, worked throughout their whole life — at one point they were business owners — and now just enjoying their retirement,” Munson said.
Joyce, of the Secret Service, said there are no plans to charge the Winters with any crimes.
“They came clean right away,” he said. “There are no criminal actions. The money was seized and the couple, we’ve determined, were not criminals.”
Mazur said this case should put everyone on guard.
“I think this story is worth telling,” he said, “because, if Winter is telling the truth, this takes the money-laundering threat into virtually every home in the country. … The moral of the story: ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’ Sometime greed causes people to forget that simple premise. ”