BAL HARBOUR, Fla. — Posing as money launderers, police in Bal Harbour and Glades County, Fla. laundered a staggering $71.5 million for drug cartels in an undercover sting operation, according to an in-depth investigation by The Miami Herald. With fake identities, undercover officers made deals to pick up cash from criminal organizations in cities across the country. Agents then delivered the money to Miami-Dade storefronts and even wired cash to banks overseas in China and Panama. After laundering the cash, police would skim a three percent commission fee, ultimately generating $2.4 million for themselves.
“If you think of all the money that’s made from drugs, at some point it has to be cleaned up and become legit,” remarked Finn Selander, a former DEA agent and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. But unless proper precautions are taken, sting operations can “backfire” and “come back and bite you in the proverbial ass.”
Together, the Bal Harbour Police Department and the Glades County Sheriff’s Office formed the Tri-County Task Force, which, despite the name, consisted of only two agencies. From 2010 to 2012, the task force passed on information and tips to federal agencies that led to the government seizing almost $30 million. Yet the undercover unit laundered over $70 million for drug cartels—more than twice as much as what was actually taken off the streets.
Notably, the Tri-County Task Force never made a single arrest. The task force countered that assertion, claiming they passed on intelligence that led to over 200 arrests made by other agencies. But a representative from the DEA said, “There’s no way we can validate those numbers. We have no idea what they are basing those numbers on.” Tellingly, “the task force did not document the names of the 200 people who were arrested,” according to The Miami Herald.
Thanks to the commissions from money laundering, the task force could indulge in a lavish lifestyle. Officers enjoyed $1,000 dinners at restaurants in the Miami area, and spent $116,000 on airfare and first-class flights and nearly $60,000 for hotel accommodations, including stays at the Bellagio and the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and El San Juan Resort & Casino in Puerto Rico. Police also spent over $100,000 on iPads, computers, laptops and other electronics, bought a new Jeep Grand Cherokee for $42,012 and even purchased $25,000 worth of weaponry, including FN P90 submachine guns. (Bal Harbour, a seaside village of 2,500 residents known for having the nation’s top sales-generating mall, reported just one violent crime in 2012.)
Initially, to gain seed capital to conduct the sting operations, Bal Harbour tapped into equitable sharing, a federal asset forfeiture program. Under equitable sharing, cash, cars and real estate can all be forfeited to the government if there is an alleged nexus between criminal activity and the property involved, though criminal convictions or indictments are not necessary. As Michael Sallah, the investigative reporter at the Herald who broke the story, noted, “The Tri-County Task Force’s entire sting operation could not have existed without the DOJ’s Equitable Sharing program.”
In fact, Duane Pottorff, the chief of law enforcement at the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, was remarkably candid about his agency’s motivations in joining the task force: “We thought this was a chance to bring in more revenue.” “Forfeiture money allowed us to have resources that normally we wouldn’t have,” including “patrol cars, vests, guns for the deputies, ammunition, all this, the training room, the training equipment is all paid with forfeiture funds,” he added.