Treasury Dept Operation Spotlights Panama’s Money Laundering Role

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New details have emerged about an international money laundering ring stretching between Colombia, Panama and Mexico, with the US government’s attack against the network highlighting Panama’s crucial role in legitimizing illicit finances.

Eight people and 20 companies connected to Jorge Fadlallah Cheaitelly, an Iranian-Colombian man, were targeted by the Treasury Department under the Kingpin Act and placed under sanctions, according to a news release. Cheaitelly — who was arrested in Costa Rica in 2011 and extradited to the US in 2012 — has been accused of leading the money laundering organization that included family members and was run out of the Central American nation.

Through the new sanctions, the Treasury Department will attempt to freeze assets of all individuals and companies allegedly involved in Cheaitelly’s laundering operation, and impose penalties on anyone continuing to do business with them.

Among those designated in the latest round of sanctions were Cheaitelly’s father, Ignacio Plata Rivera, and other relatives, prominent Panamanian lawyer Jorge Plata McNulty, and several associates who allegedly laundered drug money through companies in Panama (click on Treasury Department organogram to expand).

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

The Treasury Department also targeted the assets of 20 companies belonging to Cheaitelly and his associates, including import-export businesses, a non-profit foundation, restaurants and other shell companies located in Panama, Colombia and Mexico.

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InSight Crime Analysis

When the Treasury Department first went after Cheaitelly’s money-laundering operations more than two years ago, it was discovered that his vast operation stretched across South America, Central America, Africa and the Middle East. One of his shell companies was linked to Lebanese drug trafficker Ayman Joumaa, who is alleged to have moved cocaine and laundered money for various Colombian and Mexican cartels, and is known to have financed Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah.

While Cheaitelly’s associates appear to not have the same international connections, the sanctions against them are further proof of how Panama remains a strategic location for money launderers, due to its status as a regional financial hub with lax investment laws and a dollarized economy.

They also highlight how difficult it is to untangle the webs created by professional money launderers such as Cheaitelly, who himself was first placed under sanctions in 2011. Just last February, the Colombian drug trafficker alleged to have run Cheaitelly’s narcotics trafficking organization was also designated under the Kingpin Act. 

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