How do criminals launder money through a restaurant?

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September 1, 2016

None would have described Mizu Sushi Lounge in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico as nondescript. It wasn’t a traditional Mexican restaurant by any means. Patrons dined on deep-fried sushi rolls, and washed the quasi-fusion food down with icy glasses of sangria. Mizu hosted anniversaries, birthdays, and Oscar-viewing parties — and guests made sure to document each boisterous celebration on Facebook. In fact, more than 500 people “checked in” to Mizu via various social media platforms, and many gave it high marks on online review sites. It was a place to see and be seen.

In September 2015 the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) deemed five Mexican businesses “Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers,” froze each business’ assets and prohibited any U.S. company from doing business with them. All five businesses were found to have laundered money in order to provide financial support to Mexico’s Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generation, an international drug trafficking ring. Mizu Sushi was one of the five.

Restaurants are a classic way to move money,” says Kieran Beer, chief analyst of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists. Beer adds that pretty much any cash-intensive business can be used to launder money — laundromats, used car dealerships, taxi services — but restaurants tend to crop up again and again in money laundering cases.