In a state seized by a dramatic surge in drug dealing, Bal Harbour police were about to take their controversial sting operation far outside Florida.
After weeks of delivering drug money to Miami storefront businesses, a new deal unfolded thousands of miles away in a country where the war on drugs had shifted: Venezuela.
Instead of enlisting the help of federal agents, the officers from the small community embarked on a series of laundering arrangements that were never revealed to the federal government.
For two years starting in 2010, they funneled millions in drug money into the bank accounts of Venezuelans, including William Amaro Sanchez, now special assistant to President Nicolás Maduro. The stated goal: to disrupt criminal groups.
They sent drug money to a well-known trafficker, a cash smuggler and a money launderer — more than $4 million in all.
In spite of U.S. warnings about the emergence of the country as a major hub for cocaine, the police never investigated the people to whom they were sending millions in drug proceeds, including a host of individuals with criminal records.
“They had no authority to do what they were doing,” said Felix Jimenez, former chief inspector of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “They were just lucky that when they were picking up all this money, nobody got killed.”
Federal agents for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago are investigating the money laundered by the Tri-County Task Force, a partnership between Bal Harbour and the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, including $2.4 million kept by the police for brokering the deals.
But the latest revelations about the task force’s foray into a country known as a hub for trafficking is expected to bring more federal scrutiny to a unit that veered far from its borders without any supervision by prosecutors, records show.