Massive Miami gold-smuggling case finally ends. Deal keeps armored car CEO from prison

·5 min read

Miami’s sensational “dirty gold” probe has ended with a whimper.

The last defendant charged in a nearly $4 billion gold-smuggling case linking Miami to Latin America was handed a probationary sentence on Tuesday. It was remarkably light punishment for Jesus Gabriel Rodriguez Jr., given that he was facing up to 20 years in prison when he was initially charged with a supporting role in the massive money-laundering conspiracy case upon his arrest.

It brought some relief to Rodriguez, the former owner of armored truck company Transvalue Inc., which hauled multiple gold shipments from Miami International Airport to a major precious-metals importer in Doral that was at the center of the five-year-old criminal case.

At Tuesday’s Miami federal court hearing, attended by only his wife and parents, Rodriguez choked up as he apologized to his family, the U.S. government and the judge and accepted “full responsibility.”

“My heart is heavy,” Rodriguez, the former CEO of Transvalue, told U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles. “I have been involved in this legal process for five years, never divulging [anything]. A cloud has been hanging over my head since my younger son’s birth.”

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The sentencing followed Rodriguez’s plea agreement to a far lesser charge of falsifying U.S. customs paperwork regarding the origins of the gold shipments from the Caribbean and Latin America.

Gayles imposed a two-year probationary sentence based on the agreement reached by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Rodriguez’s defense attorney. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Rodriguez could have faced up to six months in prison.

Still, Rodriguez, 46, has a criminal conviction, was required to pay a $267,817 penalty to the U.S. government, and had to sell his Doral-based family business.

In January, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to submitting false customs documents that concealed the true origins of gold loads being imported through Miami International Airport. As part of his plea deal, Rodriguez admitted that he helped import thousands of kilos of gold valued at $140 million into the United States from Curaçao, knowing that the customs paperwork falsely represented its origins.

The records falsely showed the gold was shipped from the Cayman Islands to make it look like it didn’t come from Curaçao, which is known as an illicit trading hub for gold mined in South America, including nearby Venezuela. Disclosing that the gold was actually shipped through Curaçao would have violated U.S. anti-money-laundering laws.

Prosecutors portrayed Rodriguez as a supporting player in the sprawling money-laundering case, which was unveiled five years ago with the arrests of three Miami-area gold brokers who worked for NTR Metals in Doral. They were accused of importing $3.6 billion worth of gold from Peru and other South American countries in trades tainted by various criminal activities, including illegal mining, bribery payments and false customs records. A Miami Herald series documented how criminal gangs and cocaine traffickers diverted their illicit profits into the gold business by tapping into unregulated mines and crooked brokers.

However, Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Michael R. Band, downplayed his client’s role in the international gold-smuggling scheme. In court papers, he described him as a hard-working businessman who made only between $6,000 and $9,000 while hauling gold shipments for NTR Metals.

Band said the father of two sons has been active in his community, including serving on the West Dade Community Council and helping distribute food to the disadvantaged. He also said that Rodriguez once provided assistance to federal prosecutors in a prior money-laundering investigation and cut off business with a Chilean gold exporter implicated in the latest conspiracy case.

After Tuesday’s sentencing, Band said he was “grateful to the government prosecutors for listening to our presentation of the facts and revisiting the original money laundering complaint. They came to an appreciation for Jesus’ role in this case. The final result worked out well.”

The NTR Metals case put a spotlight on Miami as a major gold-import capital and on mining’s devastation of the rain forest and indigenous people in South America. The U.S. Attorney’s Office case had a direct impact on the gold trade, as Latin American exporters began sending more of the precious metal to New York and Los Angeles — though the South Florida area has started to regain some lost ground during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to trade data compiled by WorldCity Inc. in Miami-Dade.

After his arrest in June of last year, Rodriguez was accused of participating in the international smuggling network by helping brokers coordinate gold shipments linked to criminal activities, according to prosecutors Walter Norkin and Andrea Goldbarg. Between 2015 and 2016, Rodriguez’s trucking company hauled some of the gold loads, which originated in South America but were shipped through Curaçao and then to Miami International Airport. From MIA, his company hauled the illicit gold shipments to NTR Metals.

U.S. authorities say NTR Metals, which had a small refinery in Doral and a major processing facility in Ohio, was not supposed to buy gold from Curaçao as part of its anti-money-laundering policy. The island country is commonly used as a transshipment point for gold illegally mined in, and smuggled out of, South America, according to U.S. authorities.

To cover their tracks, the gold shipments would be routed from Curaçao to Miami, then go to the Cayman Islands and back to Miami. As a result, the gold exporting country falsely appeared to be the Cayman Islands.

The buyers of the gold were co-conspirators operating in South Florida, the Caribbean and Latin America who earned commissions by procuring gold for NTR Metals. The firm’s three principal brokers, Samer Barrage, Juan Granda and Renato Rodriguez, were the first defendants charged in the money-laundering conspiracy in 2017. They pleaded guilty and served several years in prison.

NTR Metals was owned by Dallas parent company Elemetal, which pleaded guilty to failing to maintain a strong anti-money-laundering program and paid a $15 million fine to the U.S. government. In addition to NTR Metals and its parent company, prosecutors also charged a Peruvian gold exporter, three of his associates and a Lima-based customs broker — all accused of falsifying documents and paying bribes to officials to move loads of the precious metal to Miami.

The case, because of its geographical breadth and financial complexity, involved a joint investigation by Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and IRS.