MIAMI — It’s a nickname that most people wouldn’t want, but one man took pride in it.
A man who considered himself the Pablo Escobar of gold smuggling and two other former workers at a Miami-area refinery imported more than $1 billion in illegally mined gold from South America in a vast money-laundering scheme from 2013 to 2016, U.S. prosecutors say.
In a criminal complaint, the U.S. said that the three ex-employees of NTR Metals Miami and accomplices from several South American countries coordinated the purchase of illegally mined gold originating from Peruvian mines controlled by drug traffickers.
“The international gold trade has become a common method for the laundering of illegal mining, narcotics and other criminal proceeds,” said the complaint filed by prosecutor Francisco Maderal.
Prosecutors identified the ringleader as Juan Pablo Granda, a 35-year-old U.S. citizen born in Ecuador who formerly was director of operations for NTR Metals Miami. FBI agents detained him at his mother’s home in Miami on March 15, after he was fired by NTR’s Texas-based parent company.
Evidence in the complaint includes exchanges among the three men through messaging apps, such as Whatsapp. In one of them, Granda boasted about his gold-smuggling operations by comparing himself to the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, killed in 1993. “I’m like Pablo coming to get the coke,” Granda wrote, according to the complaint.
Renato Rodriguez, once the company’s executive sales director for Latin America, and Samer Barrage, a U.S. citizen born in London who once oversaw NTR’s operations in Miami, also were charged. The three have pleaded not guilty and now await a trial that U.S. District Judge Robert Scola set for January 2018.
Prosecutors say the men purchased the illegal gold from early 2013 to 2016. During Granda’s bail hearing in March, Maderal said Granda alone coordinated the laundering of more than $1 billion in illegal gold.
“In general, gold is a good medium for money laundering because it has universal and readily ascertainable value and is difficult to trace,” the U.S. said in its complaint.
NTR Metals, a Dallas-based refining company, was not charged in the case. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2014, after a Peruvian government crackdown on illegally mined gold, the drug traffickers who owned the illegal mines began smuggling the gold into Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and other Latin American countries, and then exported it to Miami refineries, prosecutors said in the complaint.
The U.S. government gained access to the cellphones of Granda and Rodriguez from NTR Metals, which had confiscated the devices months before the company was notified of the criminal investigation. NTR Metals requested that Granda and Rodriguez surrender their cellphones after it began an internal investigation into a $304 million gold shipment that was stolen while on its way from Peru to the United States.
During Granda’s bail hearing, Magistrate Judge Andrea Simonton said she considered the text messages to be crucial evidence.
“These are text messages from your client that are specifically discussing gold smuggling and mules carrying gold into other countries with, you know, certain explicit details,” Simonton said. In one of the exchanges, authorities say, Granda sent pictures of young men he said were hired as “mules” to carry smuggled gold.
Granda, Rodriguez and Barrage searched for clients using “smiling and dialing” cold calls, authorities added.
Prosecutors said the three cultivated relationships with gold sellers by entertaining them and bringing to Miami. On a trip to Chile, Rodriguez and Barrage entertained a Chilean gold smuggler with alcohol and prostitutes, the complaint says.
Defense lawyers for Granda and Rodriguez declined to comment about their clients’ cases. Barrage’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.