Behind bars: Colombians in £50m drug money scam

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The final member of a Colombian gang working in London for a drugs cartel was jailed yesterday for his part in laundering £50m from cocaine sold on the streets of Britain.

The final member of a Colombian gang working in London for a drugs cartel was jailed yesterday for his part in laundering £50m from cocaine sold on the streets of Britain.

Thirteen gang members have now been convicted and jailed after a three-year Customs & Excise investigation, codenamed Uproar, into the biggest operation of its kind brought to court.

The gang operated through corrupt bureaux de changes, couriers and complex electronic money transfers between accounts in the UK, Isle of Man, the US and Colombia.

Reporting restrictions on the long-running case were lifted at Kingston Crown Court, south London, yesterday after the final defendant, Juan Manuel Salgado, 50, a Colombian-born naturalised British citizen, pleaded guilty to laundering £2.3m and was jailed for five years.

The vast sums – £50m was laundered in three years and returned to the notorious Cali cartel in Colombia – and highly organised network reveal that South American gangs have a firm hold on the British cocaine market. Customs worked with the CIA as well as other agencies to track the gang. Over three years up to April 2000, the launderers, who had no contact with drugs, "cleaned" the proceeds from more than 2,500kg (5,500lb) of cocaine sold in Britain.

Customs did not attempt to go after the drug dealers in this case but they believe most of the cocaine was smuggled via a freighter from Colombia to Spain and into Britain via Dover.

The gang was headed by Luis Edwardo Hurtado, 39, another Colombian-born naturalised British citizen, who owned the World Express bureau de change in Camberwell, south London, and used a network of runners to collect money from drug traffickers. It was moved around the streets of London in rucksacks, holdalls and plastic carrier bags to be changed, hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time, at a series of bureaux. Hurtado, of Kilburn in north London, was jailed for eight years after pleading guilty last year to laundering £13m. In total, the gang members were jailed for 60 years.

The gang aroused suspicions in 1998 when the National Criminal Intelligence Service began to receive reports of unusually large amounts of notes being bought by several bureaux from currency wholesalers. One of these was "7 Day Change", a small glass cubicle in a sweet shop on Bayswater Road, London, run by Chantana Platt, 55, a Thai-born naturalised British citizen.

There, customs officers found a tatty notebook with the title "handy book" and a black cat on the front in which she had recorded, in Thai, transactions with Hurtado totalling $16m (£10.8m). Platt admitted her part in the scam and was sentenced to seven years and a niece pleaded guilty to helping and was jailed for six months.

Undercover officers also watched Hurtado change £100,000 into dollars and followed him and his business partner, Mario Giraldo Lopez, 54, to the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington in September 1999. Lopez went into a room with a rucksack and came out empty-handed. The room was rented by a Colombian, Yolanda Roa Jimenez, 50, an air stewardess for Avianca, Colombia's national airline. She was stopped at Heathrow before a flight to Bogota with $132,400. Roa Jimenez and Lopez were each jailed for three years.

In March 2000 Hurtado's associates Benjamin Colorado, 41, and Ruben Dario Perez, 27, both Colombians, arrived in the UK and were followed. They were seen changing pounds for dollars at a bureau de change near Victoria Arcade, central London. Its owner, Indian-born Suresh Chopra, of Palmers Green, north London, was jailed for three years.

When the gang was arrested by 100 customs officers in April 2000, Hurtado had a bag with $382,000 (£258,500). Customs seized $1m and £253,000 at various addresses, including $500,000 at a London flat that was the counting house, owned by John Serna Munera, 35, a Colombian national. Munera was jailed for six years.

Hurtado's brother-in-law and right-hand man Byron Carrera, 34, an Ecuadorian, is serving six-and-a-half years. Through his money laundering, Hurtado kept a low profile, living in a rundown council flat, and Carrera lived next door.

Investigators believe Hurtado has more than just the prison term on his mind. Paul Evans, chief investigation officer of Customs, said: "When Hurtado was arrested he was crying his eyes out. It wasn't because we arrested him, it was because he was worried about how he was going to repay the money we seized to the cartels.

"If you lose £1,000, someone is going to shoot your legs off. Money is central. The cartels will be coming after them to demand their money."

How the cartels 'clean' the profits from cocaine

With millions of pounds in cash being handed over to drug dealers in Britain every month, the Colombians had to devise methods of making the money "clean" and getting it back to South America undetected.

The "dirty" sterling was often laundered for dollars at London-based bureaux de change owned by gang members. Customs uncovered at least six methods of returning the dollars to Colombia, from complex financial deals to stuffing a bra full of cash.

One of the main techniques was to place cash in UK bank accounts and then wire the money to accounts in Miami, New York and Bogota. A web of accounts were set up that included Colombian residents holding money in the Isle of Man. An associate of the Cali cartel set up an account in Miami where an estimated $1m (£700,000) of drugs money was laundered every day.

Another technique was for black market brokers based in Colombia to use "dirty" money to buy life insurance policies that would then be cashed in for "clean" money.

At least one flight attendant for Avianca, the Colombian national airline, was used to smuggle money. On a flight to Bogota she was found with $132,400 in a false compartment in her bag, in her bra and in a torch.