MONTREAL — A sophisticated money laundering ring with international tentacles was behind hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions until it was dismantled this week, federal authorities said Tuesday.
The RCMP told a news conference its probe — dubbed "Collector" — uncovered a network with cells in Montreal and Toronto that collected and laundered money primarily from Montreal criminal groups.
"We believe with the amounts we saw being transited through the network we just dismantled, this network was occupying a primary place in the money laundering world in Montreal," Sgt. Francois-Olivier Myette said.
Police did not look further into organized criminal groups that allegedly used the group's services — there were at least six — but investigators have no doubt they played a big role in cleaning dirty money.
"These cells might have different links to different organized crime groups, but it wasn't the main focus (of our investigation)," Myette said. "We were really focusing on the money laundering aspect of it, although it was necessary to find drugs to demonstrate the money was derived from sales of narcotics and proceeds of crime."
Supt. Martine Fontaine said the network used connections in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, the United States and China to launder money before returning it to drug-exporting countries, such as Colombia and Mexico.
She called the investigation one of the most important of its kind in Canada, noting it was one of the rare money laundering probes that has led to gangsterism charges. "It is by depriving criminal groups of their money laundering networks that we will shake the very structure of organized crime," she said.
On Monday more than 300 officers from the RCMP and other forces, aided by the Canada Revenue Agency, took part in raids in Ontario and Quebec. They seized drugs, cash and bank accounts and restrained real estate with a total estimated value of $32.8 million.
Myette explained the two-year investigation was triggered in 2016 by a tip from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. He said investigators observed hundreds of clandestine exchanges of bags filled with between $250,000 to $500,000. The money was often stuffed in bags or suitcases and transactions took place in parking lots and other locations.
Documents and other evidence suggests hundreds of millions of dollars were allegedly laundered through the group without ever leaving the country. The group used what is known as an informal value transfer system.
"So taking money in one jurisdiction and then retrieving money in another jurisdiction without actual transfers," Myette explained. The network offered up a money transfer service to drug-exporting countries.
Seventeen people face charges including conspiracy, possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking, gangsterism and laundering proceeds of crime.
The network's alleged leaders, Nader Gramian-Nik, 56, of Vaughan, Ont., and Mohamad Jaber, 51, of Laval, Que., were among those arrested. Three suspects were still being sought late Tuesday, but none are believed to be in Canada.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press