Suitcases of drug money arriving in South Florida are fueling legitimate commerce between Venezuela and the United States, even as ties between the two countries deteriorate, according to local and federal investigators.
South Florida has become a hub of drug-money laundering, through a black-market exchange of U.S. dollars and Venezuelan bolivares, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
A money-laundering task force in Broward and Miami-Dade counties has traced millions of illicit dollars to international heroin and cocaine traffickers, who rely on South Florida brokers to sell the cash to desperate business owners in Venezuela. Otherwise, those businessmen have no access to enough U.S. currency to import American products.
The black-market currency exchange ballooned after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez placed tougher restrictions on the availability of U.S. dollars in May 2010, the drug control office report said.
More than 15 people in South Florida — mostly Venezuelans — were arrested last year on federal money laundering charges. They are accused of laundering more than $7 million in heroin and cocaine profits, according to a federal indictment.
Federal authorities say the scheme often works like this: Drug traffickers in the United States make millions of dollars selling heroin and cocaine smuggled from South America. They pay someone to pick up the cash in Puerto Rico or New York and bring it to South Florida.
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