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A group of defendants indicted last November in a federal drug money laundering case entered guilty pleas Tuesday before federal Judge Shelby Highsmith of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The case involves the officers and employees of two Miami-based money remittance/transfer firms active in South Florida’s Hispanic community. Pleading guilty to conspiracy to launder drug money were United Express Inc., president Ana Lucia Arbelaez, Daniela Arbelaez, Sandra Serna-Osorio, Fernandez Emilio Torres and Guadelupe Freire. They will be sentenced Oct. 17. They face a possible statutory maximum of 20 years. The remaining defendants — Gloria Exchange Corp. (d/b/a Gloria Envias), Orlando Puche, Mauricio Puche, Enrique Puche, Wilder Moreno, Raul Espinosa, Carminia Garzon and Zaidy Rojas — are scheduled to go on trial before Highsmith on July 2. The money laundering charges resulted from a 17-month-long combined federal, state and local investigation in which undercover agents posing as drug dealers delivered a total of more than $2.3 million in small bills to the defendants at the two firms. Some of the funds were converted to $100 bills so they could be more easily smuggled out of the U.S.; the rest of the money was wired to overseas accounts, according to federal officials. Most money remittance/transfer firms are legitimate, according to Charles Intriago, a former Miami federal prosecutor and publisher of Money Laundering Alert. But their proliferation — an estimated 200,000 firms nationally — has made them “very vulnerable” to money launderers, Intriago says. And they’re easy pickings for police and prosecutors. “Unlike securities or insurance firms, their operations are relatively uncomplicated deals,” Intriago says. “They’re like low-hanging fruit, easier to sting.”

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