A North Miami couple is accused of laundering millions of dollars for a “sophisticated” international human smuggling organization based in Brazil through several local businesses.
Eduardo Pereira, 49, and Marcia Tiago, 48, faced Miami-Dade Judge Mindy Glazer during bond court on Tuesday. They are accused of being the primary money launderers for Vantuir De Souza, the alleged kingpin of the organization who is under house arrest in Brazil pending human smuggling charges, according to an arrest warrant.
De Souza is also accused of organizing a human smuggling vessel that was lost at sea in November 2016. Two boat captains and at least 17 people seeking to be smuggled into the United States are still missing and presumed dead by authorities.
The human smuggling group’s activities were uncovered after the establishment of Operation: Rota Caribe, a task force formed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to target human smugglers.
Though the couple was charged in Miami-Dade, a Broward County Sheriff’s Office task force led the money laundering operation – named Operation: Florida Phoenix – that uncovered details related to the illicit flow of money.
The De Souza operation was found to have set up a network of captains and small vessels to separately smuggle narcotics and people to the United States.
“During the course of this investigation, a sophisticated international smuggling and money laundering organization was identified. This organization was shown to be actively smuggling people into the United States and laundering the illicit proceeds,” the arrest warrant reads. “This elaborate trade-based money laundering scheme was used to launder tens of millions of dollars of illicit proceeds generated by the smuggling organization.”
Pereira and Tiago face the same charges: three counts of money laundering greater than $100,000, two counts of engaging in an unlicensed money service business greater than $100,000 and one count of engaging in an unlicensed money service business from $20,000 to $100,000. The federal charges could see the couple behind bars for decades.
The judge ordered the couple to be placed under house arrest if they were able to pay the $300,000 bond they were individually ordered to post. They must also prove the money used to post bond came from a legitimate source.
Citing cooperating witnesses, authorities conservatively estimate that hundreds of people were smuggled into the United States – primarily through the route of Brazil to the Caribbean, where a travel visa is not required, and then by boat to South Florida. The people smuggled in would ultimately be transported by vehicles to the area of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where they would often stay, the arrest warrant adds.
The organization charged up to $25,000 per person smuggled. That charge was usually paid in cash by the friends and family of the people being smuggled in.
Whereas human smuggling is the importation of people to the United States while deliberately evading immigration laws, human trafficking involves the exploitation of people, such as that seen in sex trafficking or slavery, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.
According to authorities, most of the money paid to the operation was entrusted to Pereira and Tiago, who integrated the illicit funds to the U.S. economy through several businesses – identified as Maxdu Properties LLC, Get Trade Enterprises LLC, Alaska Inc. and Auto Exchange USA Corp.
“Eduardo Pereira, Marcia Tiago, have conspired, together and with others, to launder the illicit proceeds from human smuggling,” the arrest warrant adds.
The husband and wife are accused of laundering $3.6 million in 2015, $4.5 million in 2016 and $170,000 in 2017 “by way of seemingly innocuous payments for goods and services in a further attempt to layer and conceal the source of the illicit funds.”