US prosecutors: illegal gold used for money-laundering

MIAMI — 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.