On a busy stretch of Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables, between Madeira and Majorca Avenues, stands a row of small businesses.
One of them is a UPS store, one of many similar franchises throughout the United States where people can ship parcels or rent mailboxes.
But the address where the UPS outlet is located, 1825 Ponce de Leon, has recently been singled out as a place of interest for investigators who track Mexican drug cartels.
Federal court documents say people suspected of laundering money for a Mexican drug-trafficking organization used it as an address for the corporate headquarters of a fake company linked to an international investment scam. An investigative article published last month in the respected Mexican weekly news magazine Proceso identified the Mexican trafficking organization as the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s most powerful organized crime enterprise led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – the most wanted drug trafficker in the world.
Neither the Drug Enforcement Administration nor the other federal agencies involved in the investigation offered any comment on the case. Also, lawyers for the two main suspects in the case could not be reached for comment.
But documents in federal court in Orlando name the suspects as Daniel Rojo Filho of Brazil and Pedro Benevides of Portugal. The documents describe them as connected to money laundering, an alleged international investment scam and drug trafficking for a Mexican group. Proceso said both men were key financiers for the Sinaloa cartel. Rojo was listed in Florida Division of Corporations records as chief financial officer of Obbalube Investment Corp. A Sept. 16, 2008, company annual report, that listed Filho as a corporation officer, said the firm’s principal place of business was at 1925 Ponce de Leon, Suite 262.
Proceso said Rojo and Benevides remain free. There is no evidence in court records that Rojo has been charged, but a drug trafficking case in which his name and that of Benevides surfaced has been dismissed in Florida. The dismissal order said Benevides, who is not a U.S. citizen, was in immigration custody because of deportation proceedings. In September, Benevides pleaded not guilty to an indictment alleging bank and mail fraud. A trial is expected in June.
An employee at the UPS store that operates at the address listed as Obbalube Investment’s place of business said there were no office suites at the site.
The employee said the UPS store rented mailboxes and that one of the mailboxes was numbered 262.
The employee was not familiar with the case.
Documents available in Orlando federal court indeed note that the suspects falsely said their fake investment firm operated out of an office at 1825 Ponce de Leon and that in reality the address belonged to the UPS store and a mailbox there.
“Surveillance indicated that this location was a UPS store,” according to a “master affidavit” in the case filed by an Osceola County sheriff’s deputy assigned to the Internal Revenue Service unit within a U.S. Secret Service financial crimes and money laundering task force. “The suite, identified as #262, is actually a UPS mailbox at a UPS store.
The surveillance was carried out by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami, the court document says.
The master affidavit links OIC, the firm listed at the UPS store, to the international investment scam along with several other fake investment corporations set in Orlando and other Florida cities by the suspects, but it does not say anything about drug trafficking.
But testimony in a separate drug trafficking case in Orlando federal court linked Obbalube Investment Corp., Rojo and Benevides to a Mexican drug cartel.
“Daniel Rojo is a target of a Drug Enforcement Administration, IRS, Customs investigation out of Phoenix field division,” David K. Humphreys, a DEA special agent told the Orlando court of U.S. Magistrate Judge Karla Spaulding in 2009. “Based on their investigation they’ve identified a number of funds that were deposited into his bank accounts which came from identified Mexican drug traffickers.”
In later testimony, Agent Humphreys provided more details, referring to a Mexican organized crime outfit, a U.S. law-enforcement phrase reserved for a drug cartel.
“The money was associated specifically with a Mexican organized crime group,” said Humphreys. He did not identify the group by name.
It was Proceso, the Mexican magazine, that said in its Jan. 25 article, titled “Sinaloa Cartel: A Worldwide Scammer,” that linked the powerful drug-trafficking organization to the fake investment companies in Florida, including Obbalube Investment Corp. at 1825 Ponce de Leon.
Proceso attributed the information to a report prepared by the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, Va., a non-profit corporation that operates federally-funded research and development centers to assist the U.S. government in dealing with national security issues.
Quoting the institute’s report, Proceso said Rojo and Benevides were the Sinaloa cartel’s financiers who laundered millions dollars in drug proceeds through legal and illegal companies.
Herman Phillips, the institute’s head of corporate communications, said it was up to the Pentagon to release the analysis they ordered. A reference to the study is available on a website that contains abstracts of Pentagon reports. However, the document itself is not available.
Piecing together the accounts in Proceso and the U.S. court documents the broad outline emerges of a sophisticated multinational organization that operates not only in Mexico but also in the United States, other countries in the Americans and Europe.
The cartel ships and sells drugs and then moves profits through companies, bank accounts and money exchange houses in various countries. The organization employs financial consultants, accountants and logistics experts to ensure a smooth flow of drugs and money, the documents show.
Proceso said that the Florida companies set up under Rojo and Benevides operated as a hub between 2007 and 2009 to con investors in the United States, Latin America and Europe to deposit millions of dollars in bank accounts that later were either stolen or used to hide illegal drug profits.