U.S. officials last month seized 81 vehicles valued at approximately $3.2 million that were being exported from South Florida to Venezuela by a smuggling ring including Raul Gorrin, a Venezuelan billionaire tied to the regime of Nicolas Maduro.
The vehicles were to be smuggled in violation of U.S. export laws and sanctions against the socialist Venezuelan government, said Anthony Salisbury, chief of the Miami Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) office.
" The cars going outbound are just one slice of what's been going on with the fleecing of that country's wealth," Salisbury told Univision.
According to Salisbury, many of the vehicles are linked to Venezuelans already facing indictments in the U.S., including Gorrin, a media magnate in Venezuela wanted in the U.S. for allegedly masterminding the embezzlement of $2.4 billion from state coffers through fraudulent currency deals with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.
"Raul Gorrin is one of the most wanted money lauderers in the world right now," said Salisbury.
Gorrín was allegedly collaborating with straw buyers and shell companies in South Florida to buy the vehicles and ship them to Venezuela for use by wealthy cronies of the regime and the police, HSI officials said.
Gorrín did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A former resident of Miami, Gorrin was involved last year in a secretive effort to broker a political solution Venezuela to end the sanctions.
No charges have been brought yet in relation to the seized vehicles, which were on display Wednesday at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. Some of the vehicles were equipped with police equipment such as lights and sirens may have been going to Venezuelan National Police, which is accused of human rights abuses.
The investigation into the car smuggling ring was an ongoing operation, Salisbury said, warning that businessmen in South Florida needed to more respectful of anti money laundering regulations before risking doing business with Venezuela. He did not say how investigators linked the vehicles to Gorrin.
" There are a lot of businesses and entities in the U.S. that don't seem to be getting the message. They (sanctioned Venezuelans) are still conducting busing here, setting up shell companies. We are seeing all kinds of things from cash to precious metals," said Salisbury. "These Venezuelan kleptocrats are laundering billions. They make the narcos pale in comparison. It's the entire wealth of a country slowly being leaked out of there," he added.
Among the vehicles on display was a Mercedes Biturbo SUV worth $150,000, and a Toyota Tundra truck painted in military green, a black Lexus SUV with police sirens and lights, and a Jaguar F-Type sports coupe.
Since 2017, Salisbury said HSI and federal prosecutors have seized more than $450 million in bank accounts as well as yachts, luxury properties, horses and other assets linked to Venezuelans charged with money-laundering in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The overall amount of seized assets in the United States is over $1 billion, with billions more in Europe.