Half a million in cash found in Miami car tied to Gulf Cartel, police say

A Miami man purportedly working with the Mexican Gulf Cartel is facing money-laundering charges after police detectives said they found over half a million dollars in drug cash inside his Jeep.

Mauricio Vargas, 44, was arrested this week and is scheduled to appear in Miami-Dade bond court on Wednesday.

Police say the $537,435 in cash, hidden in a book bag and a box, was proceeds from a cocaine shipment that crossed the U.S. southwestern border “originating from the Gulf Cartel,” according to an arrest report.

A portion of the money was bound for drug suppliers in Colombia, Vargas told investigators, who believe he was part of an illegal money-laundering market, according to the report.

His defense attorney, Lawrence Hashish, said his client was pulled over illegally. “As far I as know, my client has not cooperated and is not willing to cooperate,” Hashish said.

The Gulf Cartel is one of the oldest and most feared drug organizations in Mexico and is believed to move large amounts of drugs over the border for counterparts in Colombia.

Vargas is no stranger to cocaine deals.

In 2011, he was busted driving to Orlando pick up 124 kilos of cocaine that originated in Texas. He served five years in prison. He also did previous stints in prison for having counterfeit money, according to the report by Miami-Dade Detective Jonathan Santana.

Federal agents started watching Vargas again in 2015 when an informant told them he had large amounts of money inside his Miami home. Detectives searched his home and found “numerous compartments” for storing money and drugs — but discovered neither, according to the report.

He was not arrested until this month, when officers pulled him over in Sweetwater, claiming he ran a red light and the smell of marijuana was wafting from his Jeep.

Prosecutors believe Vargas is part of what is known as the “black-market peso exchange,” a drug-fueled underground lending system that props up hundreds of South Florida businesses.

Last year, state prosecutors charged 22 suspected money launderers in South Florida, which remains a major hub for washing dirty drug money. Property sales are another source for washing drug money — earlier this month, the U.S. government announced it would extend and expand a temporary initiative designed to uncover criminals laundering money through real estate.