Three key members of a scheme to transfer organized crime proceeds from the United States to Mexico through so-called “funnel accounts” opened at the Wells Fargo bank in Rio Rico have now pleaded guilty to federal charges.
The latest guilty plea, which was accepted by a judge during a hearing on Wednesday at U.S. District Court in Tucson, was from Carlos Antonio Vasquez, the former manager of the bank branch. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering – a crime that normally carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, but for which Vasquez will receive no more than 34 months (2 years, 10 months) in exchange for his plea.
The conspiracy reportedly lasted from February 2017 until August 2019.
According to the factual basis of Vasquez’s deal, he knew that the bank had closed the accounts of at least one member of a money laundering organization. Even so, he allowed the person, who is not named in the document, as well as other co-conspirators, to bring Mexican citizens to the branch in Rio Rico to open accounts with cash given to them by the conspirators.
The accounts were generally opened with cash amounts totaling less than $10,000, the government previously alleged. But once they were opened, the accounts reportedly began receiving large cash deposits from bank branches in Arizona and elsewhere in the United States.
The new accounts had a professional benefit for Vasquez: They made it look like the Rio Rico Wells Fargo branch was attracting new customers in furtherance of the bank’s sales goals. But according to federal prosecutors, Vasquez knew that the funds used to open the accounts were the proceeds of drug trafficking, and he allowed the accounts to be used to “funnel” the money to Mexico via wire transfers.
“When the funnel account owners and the members of the money laundering organization returned a few days after opening each account, Vasquez would then wire money to accounts located in Mexico on behalf of the money laundering organization and without associating the names of members of the money laundering organization with the bank accounts or the wire transfers,” the plea agreement says.
Vasquez himself authorized wire transfers out of the funnel accounts – generally sent in amounts just less than $10,000 – that totaled $357,883, according to the plea deal.
Vasquez, who was indicted on federal charges in October 2019, is now set to be sentenced on Aug. 3 at U.S. District Court in Tucson.
A woman named Maria Concepcion Gonzalez Garcia reportedly played a central role in the conspiracy by approaching people in Nogales, Sonora who were down on their luck financially and recruiting them to cross the border and open funnel accounts in their names.
Gonzalez enticed people to participate by promising to pay them $90-95, prosecutors say, and helped transport them to the bank to open the accounts. She was connected to the transfer of more than $1.5 million from U.S. accounts to Mexico, according to the factual basis of her plea deal with federal prosecutors, which she signed earlier this year.
Gonzalez pleaded guilty to the same offense as Vasquez – conspiracy to commit money laundering. However, she is facing a longer maximum term of 51 months (4 years, 3 months) when she is sentenced on June 14 at U.S. District Court in Tucson.
A number of other co-conspirators who played lesser roles – including those who agreed to open the accounts in their names – have been prosecuted, convicted and sentenced at Santa Cruz County Superior Court to terms ranging from one year of unsupervised probation to a year in prison.
A man at the center of the case, a small businessman from Nogales, Sonora, was prosecuted on both state and federal charges.
In August 2020, Enrique Monarque Orozco, the 51-year-old owner of a car wash and hair salon in Nogales, Sonora, was sentenced at Superior Court in Nogales to 2.5 years in state prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of illegally operating an enterprise, a Class 3 felony, in connection with the Rio Rico bank case. A few months later, he pleaded guilty at federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering for the same activity that earned him a state conviction.
The dual prosecutions are allowed under the “separate sovereigns doctrine,” which permits the federal and a state government to criminally prosecute the same person for the same conduct.
However, while Monarque pleaded guilty at federal court to the same charge as Vasquez and Gonzalez, his plea deal with federal prosecutors suggests he is facing the possibility of the full 20-year prison sentence when he is sentenced in Tucson on Aug. 2. He also agreed to forfeit a 2017 Chevy Tahoe to the government that he allegedly used in the commission of his crimes.
According to documents filed in the state and federal cases against him, the funnel accounts at Wells Fargo were opened with cash supplied by Monarque, who sat with the recruits at the bank as they opened their accounts. He then controlled the accounts for the purpose of laundering and transferring dirty money to Mexico.
Monarque reportedly told investigators that he used the Wells Fargo in Rico Rico because he was friends with the manager, who knew Monarque was using third parties to open the accounts. He said the manager encouraged him to come to the branch to open more accounts because “it looks good for him,” but added that the reason he used that branch was because he knew staff wouldn’t report his activities, ostensibly because of his relationship with the manager, who was identified in Monarque’s pre-sentence report by the initials C.V.
According to the factual basis of his plea deal in the federal case, Monarque is accused of illegally transferring approximately $10 million in organized crime proceeds as part of the conspiracy.