The owners of Golden Opportunities, Jed and Natalie Ladin, may not have known they were working with the Sinaloa cartel — but between 2013 and 2014 the cartel laundered nearly $100 million of cocaine cash through Golden Opportunities, court records show. South Florida Sun Sentinel
He sold antiques in Florida. Then he helped ‘El Chapo’ launder $100M of dirty gold
By Jay Weaver And Nicholas Nehamas
More from the series: Dirty gold, clean cash: A Miami Herald investigation
Updated January 18, 2018 07:18 AM
The Chicago drug dealers working for notorious Mexican gangster El Chapo had a big problem on their hands: What should they do with the millions of dollars in cash they earned from selling cocaine?
They bought gold. Tens of millions of dollars worth from pawnshops — rings, necklaces and watches. Then they had to find a place to fence it all.
More than a thousand miles away, in an industrial warehouse in South Florida, they found the perfect partner: an obscure gold-trading company called Golden Opportunities. El Chapo’s crew shipped the metal in dozens of FedEx deliveries to the Hallandale Beach company, according to federal court records.
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The owners of Golden Opportunities, Jed and Natalie Ladin, may not have known they were working with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo — but between 2011 and 2014 his brutal Sinaloa cartel laundered nearly $100 million of cocaine cash through Golden Opportunities, court records show.
A drug cartel’s Midas touch
Mexico’s brutal Sinaloa cartel used a small South Florida gold business to launder nearly $100 million in cocaine profits. Here’s how they did it.
The Ladins did more than look the other way: After selling the gold to big refineries that would melt it down for manufacture into coins, bars and high-tech consumer products, Golden Opportunities wired the proceeds to Sinaloa shell companies in Mexico. That made Jed, 69, a former antiques dealer, and his wife, Natalie, 65, part of an international money-laundering operation transforming El Chapo’s cocaine profits into clean cash.
The money-laundering pipeline was revealed in 2014 in the ongoing federal prosecution of 30 members and associates of the Sinaloa cartel in Chicago. Already, more than half of the defendants have pleaded guilty, including the group’s two leaders. A dozen other alleged participants are fugitives. (El Chapo is in a U.S. prison awaiting trial for a different series of crimes.)
The Ladins’ case shows how international organized-crime groups manipulate America’s hush-hush gold industry to launder money and keep their businesses running. Even minor industry players like the Ladins can wind up playing supporting roles in vast criminal operations. While the couple was never charged in the Chicago case, Golden Opportunities shut down after the Ladins pleaded guilty in 2014 in a separate money-laundering prosecution involving gold.
Golden Opportunities, in Hallandale Beach near Interstate 95, was an important cog in the Chicago-to-Miami-to-Mexico money-laundering pipeline.
Jay Weaver Miami Herald
The gold industry — where deals are made quickly and informally — is a “loosey-goosey” market easy for dirty cash to infiltrate because of “good old-fashioned greed,” said John Tobon, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in South Florida.
“A handshake goes a long way and that’s the way gold [trading] works around the world,” Tobon said.
The Chicago coke-to-gold scheme was based on a tried-and-true criminal playbook: During the late 1980s, in a case dubbed “Operation Polar Cap,” federal investigators discovered Colombia’s Medellín cartel had funneled $1 billion in dirty money through jewelry stores in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami.
Now, the entire gold industry is under a cloud: After winning a $3.6 billion money-laundering case against three South Florida gold traders, federal prosecutors in Miami are targeting Latin American drug traffickers who’ve infiltrated the U.S. gold market. Their efforts — which are separate from the Chicago prosecution of the Sinaloa cartel — could scoop up more small-time gold-industry players like the Ladins who moonlight as money launderers for kingpins.
Off the farm
Jed Ladin’s path is an unlikely one that took him from North Dakota farm boy to Florida antiques dealer caught in a gold smuggling web. In his youth, he did a stint in the family business as a cattle buyer in Manitoba, then moved into real estate, developing more than 1,000 apartment units in Canada.
“He put in 80-hour weeks without complaining,” business partner and family friend Abe Anhang recalled in court papers.
But he always yearned for a warmer climate.
And so in the late 1970s he moved to the Fort Lauderdale area to start an antiques company.
Carl Stoffers ran an antiques business in Fort Lauderdale and knew Ladin for 30 years as the two competitors crisscrossed Florida for auctions and estate sales. Ladin’s company, Jed David Collection, became one of the biggest players in South Florida, Stoffers said. But Ladin wasn’t flashy.
“Jed was not a multimillionaire,” Stoffers told the Miami Herald. “He didn’t have any lavish homes or ride around in a Rolls-Royce. The guy got up at 5 o’clock in the morning. He ate in his car. He had 50 types of vitamins in his trunk he would take every day. He could outwork any of the other dealers.”
He also developed an eye for the next big thing.
When the internet ate away at brick-and-mortar antique stores in the early 2000s, Ladin turned to eBay long before his competitors caught on.
And then a few years later, as the price of gold began to skyrocket, Ladin had a stroke of genius: Antiques dealers, he realized, no longer needed to sell their gold rings and bracelets as jewelry. The value was in the metal — and he could be the one to cash in.
He bought a modest precious-metals business with Natalie in 2007, a year after they were married. The union was a second marriage for both.
The company was incorporated as Natalie Jewelry but did business as Golden Opportunities in a Hallandale Beach industrial warehouse off Interstate 95 in South Florida.
Within a few years, the price of an ounce of gold had nearly doubled — and the Ladins made a killing, at one point employing 50 people and opening branch offices as far away as Mexico.
“He landed on a golden egg,” Stoffers said.
But it wasn’t enough. Starting in 2011, according to federal court records, the Ladins turned to money laundering as a way to generate even more cash.
Golden Opportunities proved a prime ally for international drug smugglers because it had offices in both South Florida and Mexico City.
Mexican drug lord Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán is escorted by army soldiers to a waiting helicopter at a federal hangar in Mexico City in January 2016, after he was recaptured following his escape from a maximum-security prison. His Sinaloa cartel has laundered drug proceeds through the purchase and sale of gold that sometimes ends up in Miami.
Rebecca Blackwell AP
Between June 2013 and January 2014, a Chicago-based money broker secretly working as a Homeland Security informant arranged for the Sinaloa cartel to make nearly 20 transactions with Golden Opportunities, according to an indictment.
The indictment refers to “Refinery A” in Florida as the gold buyer, which several sources familiar with the case said is a reference to Golden Opportunities.
Cartel members based in Chicago collected shopping bags and suitcases of drug cash from associates in the Midwest and South. They used the money to sweep up gold from pawnshops and jewelers. Then, they shipped the goods to Golden Opportunities, which in turn sold the gold to big refineries.
To cover up the dirty deals, Jed Ladin created fake invoices to make it appear that the company was buying gold from a Mexican jewelry store, De Mexico British Metal. Federal agents said the store was owned by a Sinaloa cartel member, Carlos Parra-Pedroza, who inexplicably went by the nickname “Walt Disney.” He was described as a ringleader in the Chicago money-laundering case.
At Parra-Pedroza’s direction, Golden Opportunities wired millions of dollars to the store and to other members of the cartel in Mexico, court records show. In return, Ladin received packages from Parra-Pedroza’s store in Mexico — but they weren’t filled with gold.
In an attempt to throw off U.S. Customs agents, Parra-Pedroza exported “brass from Mexico to Golden Opportunities, but in the paperwork he claimed the brass was gold,” according to a Homeland Security Investigations affidavit.
In April, Parra-Pedroza pleaded guilty in federal court to a money laundering conspiracy. So did senior Sinaloa cartel member Diego Pineda Sánchez, who was based in Mexico.
El Chapo himself, who famously escaped twice from Mexican prisons, is awaiting trial in the United States on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering unrelated to the gold scheme. Federal prosecutors called him the biggest cocaine dealer in the world.
Jed and Natalie Ladins’ luck ran out in January 2014 when federal agents swarmed Golden Opportunities’ Hallandale Beach warehouse and arrested the couple. They weren’t charged in connection with the Chicago case, though. Agents were looking for evidence of a different scheme. And they found it.
The Ladins’ other racket started with a gold transaction with a broker in Mexico. The broker suggested that the Ladins could make some extra cash by wiring money to Mexico, although the couple didn’t have a license to transmit currency, according to court papers. The couple was desperate for cash because gold prices were plummeting.
The Ladins admitted picking up shopping bags of cash in restaurant parking lots delivered by the Mexican broker and his brother. In total, the Ladins wired $2 million to 21 people in Mexico between October 2013 and January 2014 — again by creating fake invoices that their jewelry business was buying gold. Jed Ladin admitted that he suspected the cash “was derived from criminal activity.” But he said the brothers wouldn’t let him stop.
Eventually, the Ladins pleaded guilty to a money-laundering conspiracy. (The Mexican broker and Golden Opportunities’ former chief financial officer were later acquitted at trial in Miami; the broker’s brother, also charged in the case, is a fugitive.)
The raid didn’t just end the Ladins’ money-laundering scheme — it also stopped the Sinaloa cartel associates in Chicago from using Golden Opportunities as a fence to sell dirty gold, according to court documents.
In a recorded phone conversation, the Sinaloa ringleader, Parra-Pedroza, warned a federal informant not to ship gold to the Ladins.
“Don’t call the number I gave you,” said the man known as Walt Disney. “They caught the refinery [on] the beach.”
“Get out of here,” the informant replied. “Now what?”
“Who knows?” Parra-Pedroza said.
With Golden Opportunities out of the picture, the Sinaloa network found another dealer in Los Angeles to buy their tainted gold. Court papers do not identify that second business.
Investigators in Chicago and Miami did not share information or collaborate. The raid on Golden Opportunities came as a surprise to federal authorities in Chicago, court papers show.
Jed Ladin, who has three grown children from a previous marriage, ended up being sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the Miami case. His wife, Natalie, who was born in Mexico and has three adult children of her own, was given probation.
The Ladins and their lawyers, Catherine Christie and Robert Josefsberg, declined to comment for this story.
The couple’s criminal activity took a devastating toll on their lives, according to court documents. In order to pay back the U.S. government for their crimes, they sold their jewelry, a beachfront Lauderdale-by-the-Sea condo and other assets totaling about $1.1 million.
Jed Ladin was released from prison this past fall into the custody of a halfway house in South Florida. His confinement will end this summer. Natalie, who cares for a daughter with severe disabilities, is living in a modest one-bedroom Fort Lauderdale condo.
Despite Jed Ladin’s criminal activity, those who knew him told a judge that Ladin was a man of the highest character.
In a letter before Ladin’s sentencing, one Golden Opportunities employee described his former boss as “a father to me.” The employee, Garry Scott, said Ladin put him in a management job, gave him $1,000 for fixing his car, convinced him to go back to school and helped him recover from a traumatic romantic breakup.
“Jed is one of the few people in the world,” Scott wrote, “you can actually call a good person.”
Those that say, don't know. Those that know, don't say.
After HSBC was caught laundering $881 million, the Sinaloa cartel turned to ‘Walt Disney.’ Now he faces 20 years in jail or losing his fingers.
After the mega-bank HSBC was caught laundering $881 million in narco-cash, the Sinaloa cartel began funneling a big chunk of its profits through a cash-for-gold-for-cash scheme whose alleged ringleaders include a fretful fellow with the alias “Walt Disney.”
Also known more familiarly as Don Walt, Carlos Parra-Pedroza and 31 others are said to have laundered more than $101 million in cartel bucks, in what the U.S. Attorney in Chicago terms a money-laundering organization (MLO).
And, unlike HSBC, Don Walt and his codefendants are most definitely not considered too big to jail.
Where HSBC got off with a fine, the MLO members face up to 20 years for laundering one-eighth the amount.
And, to compound the inequity, the cartel itself treats bankers far more gingerly than it does the likes of Don Walt.
The cartel is not known to have caused anybody in HSBC to fear being murdered or maimed even as the bank caused the drug lords to lose millions.
But just the prospect in being a day late in a transaction or causing the cartel to lose a paltry few thousand dollars caused Don Walt to quake.
“And if I tell them we always pay them on Tuesday [but] it’s not going to be until Wednesday, they’ll truly kill me,” Don Walt was recorded telling a confidential informant.
Don Walt complained that cartel kings who lack even a grammar-school education had difficulty understanding complications that arose in the MOL’s generally simple scheme: Drug proceeds were used to purchase 24K scrap gold and gold jewelry, which was Fed Ex-ed to a refinery where it was melted down. The refinery then paid the prevailing price per ounce to the supposed suppliers in Mexico.
“The bad thing is that these guys don’t even know the word ‘school,’ only know how to shoot,” Don Walt said on the recording.
He explained that the cartel was liable to hold you responsible if law enforcement seized the cash—even if the dough had not yet come into your possession and you were in no way to blame.
“The reason why I’m scared is because then they’re going to cut our balls off without it being our fault,” Don Walt said. “They’re good at beating everyone up…And they’re good at saying, ‘It was you.’”
The cartel has a telling vernacular for coming under investigation by law enforcement, a twist on the title of a popular TV series.
And an MLO boss such as Don Walt could not blame his underlings if the truth proved to be other than it was presented.
“You lie to me, I relay the lies and I’m the one who gets it,” Don Walt said.
A drug lord sent the MLO a BBM saying, “Stop fucking around. I made the deal with you and I’m holding you accountable.”
Don Walt spoke of one unfortunate courier who had been convinced by the cartel to accept full responsibility for what he could not possibly have prevented.
“I think they even cut his fingers off,” Don Walt reported. “Even I would’ve agreed.” At last report, nobody at HSBC was missing any digits.
And HSBC was able to operate so brazenly that its bankers were spared such hassles as having to memorize codes for their transactions, as did the members of the MLO. Don Walt emailed one code key to the confidential informant.
0=62 1= 83 2=71 3=49 4=57 5=66 6=35 7=21 8=18 9=96 Make an appointment = let’s go to the beach Appointment was made = it’s warm I am on my way = the beers are cold I am on my way back = I’m with my wife I am verifying = I have diarrhea Ticket is complete (money all there) = Mercedes Is missing/short = Hamburger It’s fucked up = I like your sister They are following me and I have money with me = Let’s go to the movie theater Monday = Red Tuesday = Yellow Wednesday = Green Thursday = White Friday = Blue Saturday = Black Sunday = Purple
On August 21, 2014, Don Walt employed the code in a message to the confidential informant: “The red one [Monday] will start with two orders…One of 66 62 62 [$500,000] and the other one of 96 62 62 [$900,000]…Let’s see if we can work all the colors [handle drug cash every day]…Go to the beach [make an appointment] the whole week.”
The confidential informant responded: “Okay.”
Prior to a cash delivery, the MLO required the intended recipient to take a random dollar bill from his pocket and read off the unique serial number. The bill served to confirm his identity when the courier arrived. The courier would then retain the bill as a receipt.
An alleged courier named Alma Lorena Ortiz De Rosa Vera apparently hoped that a more official receipt would save her after police pulled her over and found her with a bag full of cash. “Ortiz stated that the money was not hers and she did not want it,” court papers say. “Ortiz agreed to abandon the money. When agents asked her if her abandonment of the money would create a safety concern for her upon her return to Mexico, Ortiz stated that approximately $59,452 was not a significant amount of money and all she would need was a receipt showing that law enforcement had seized money.”
Another worry that HSBC does not share with the MLO is a dire shortage of craftspeople who are both able and willing to build hidden traps in vehicles where drug cash can be stored in transit.
“No one wants to do that,” an MLO member was recorded lamenting. “It’s not easy. But, damn, they’re so necessary.”
The charges against Don Walt and the 31 others are summarized in a 331-page criminal complaint, which is 301 pages longer than the statement of facts filed against HSBC for laundering eight times the amount of drug cash as well as violating sanctions against such outlaw countries as Iran and North Korea.
The bank’s washing of all that blood-soaked cartel-cash somehow did not shock people as much as recent revelations that HSBC abetted tax evasion, in truth a minor transgression in comparison. The bankers of HSBC got not an instant in jail for the much bigger crime.
Had it been offered, Don Walt would almost certainly have accepted an HSBC-style deferred prosecution agreement that carried only a fine.
He and his codefendants were instead arraigned on an indictment in Chicago federal court. He pled not guilty and could spend 20 years behind bars because he is not too big to jail.
Those that say, don't know. Those that know, don't say.
Nike share @kid
This post was updated on .
Thanks, Mica. It's a story BB has been reporting on for years, this is just an add to the story.
Those that say, don't know. Those that know, don't say.
the perfume man and chapos stinkin dollars
The way I see it.... the more people that don't like me, the less people I have to please
I remember the Chicago case in 2015, and the one in Miami, I think later that year. Sprawling cases that went all over North and South America.
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