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Cryptoasset Seizures and Forfeitures: US and UK Enforcement Overview

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Regulatory scrutiny of the use and management of cryptocurrency and other digital assets such as utility tokens and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) (collectively, cryptoassets) is rapidly growing on both sides of the Atlantic. With increasing governmental enforcement and private litigation involving cryptoassets, it is vital for individuals and businesses whose activities involve these assets to understand the broad legal framework for enforcement and the types of disputes and legal actions into which they could be drawn. Even if they are not the targets of enforcement actions or parties to legal proceedings, they may have to respond to subpoenas or other court orders. While most of the enforcement actions and litigation to date has involved cryptocurrencies, some have involved NFTs and other types of digital assets.

This article analyzes tools and procedures that enforcement authorities in the U.S. and U.K. may use to seize and forfeit cryptoassets and provides an overview of related regulatory developments in these jurisdictions.

Factual Background

Cryptocurrencies and other digital assets constitute a growing share of global financial assets. As of April 2022, cryptocurrencies were purportedly worth almost $2 trillion, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) estimated. Despite the recent volatility in cryptocurrency markets and the decline in the value of some cryptocurrencies in May and June of 2022, cryptoassets remain widely held and retain significant value. As of June 2022, cryptocurrencies were still valued at just under $1 trillion, with cryptocurrency prices showing signs of recovery according to reports by Reuters in June 2022 and August 2022. In February 2022, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) estimated that approximately 10% of U.K. adults own or have owned cryptoassets, and 68% of those are “likely” or “very likely” to acquire more.

The meteoric rise in the use and management of cryptocurrency in recent years has led to an increase in related crime. According to data provider Chainanalysis, $1.9 billion worth of cryptocurrency was stolen from January 2022 through July 2022, compared to just under $1.2 billion at the same point in 2021. Per the Chainanalysis 2022 midyear report, much of this illicit activity can be attributed to the rise in funds stolen from decentralized finance (DeFi) protocols, with North Korea-affiliated groups alone having stolen an estimated $1 billion of cryptocurrency from DeFi protocols as of July 2022. Fraudsters may deploy a range of strategies, including ransomware attacks, hacks or deception to steal from unsuspecting victims, or use cryptoassets to launder criminal proceeds.

Against this backdrop, both U.S. and U.K. law enforcement agencies have increasingly used the tools at their disposal to combat cryptocurrency-related crime. For example, in February 2022 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the seizure of $3.6 billion worth of bitcoin in connection with the 2016 hack of Bitfinex — the largest financial seizure ever.

Similarly, in July 2021, London’s Metropolitan Police seized £180 million of cryptocurrency in connection with suspected money laundering and, more recently, the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) reported that it confiscated around £26.9 million in cryptocurrency assets between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022.

US Enforcement Procedures Applicable to Cryptoassets

In the U.S., cryptoassets have been the focus of much attention by enforcement authorities in recent years. At the federal level, this is mainly the purview of the SEC, DOJ, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the U.S. Department of Treasury.

In February 2022, the DOJ formed the Virtual Asset Exploitation Unit (VAXU) within the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), which is dedicated to blockchain analysis and virtual asset seizure. VAXU is expected to work closely with the DOJ’s National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (NCET), which was launched in October 2021.

In addition, in March 2022, Attorney General Merrick Garland launched a new interagency taskforce dubbed KleptoCapture to “hold accountable corrupt Russian oligarchs.” The task force’s mission explicitly includes targeting the use of cryptocurrency to evade sanctions or launder money, with a focus on asset seizure.

In May 2022, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the DOJ’s criminal complaint against an unnamed U.S. citizen who allegedly helped customers evade U.S. sanctions by funnelling more than $10 million of bitcoin through a virtual currency exchange from the U.S. to a country that is subject to U.S. comprehensive sanctions. In so doing, the court adopted for the first time the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC’s) recent guidance on sanctions compliance obligations, saying that virtual currency is subject to OFAC’s regulations, and “financial services providers” to whom U.S. sanctions regulations apply include virtual currency exchanges.1

Overview of Cryptoasset Forfeiture by US Authorities

U.S. authorities have increasingly used asset forfeiture as a tool in crypto-related enforcement proceedings, seizing several billions of dollars of cryptoassets in recent years. For instance, since 2015, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) has seized over $3.5 billion in cryptocurrency, and, as of December 2021, the U.S. Marshals Service held $919 million in cryptocurrency.

In April 2022, federal prosecutors working with local Florida law enforcement obtained forfeiture of $34 million worth of cryptocurrency tied to illegal dark web marketplace activities. The IRS-CI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) jointly investigated this case.

U.S. prosecutors are expected to pursue increasingly aggressive civil forfeiture actions targeting cryptoassets. In these cases, the government can transfer the funds in question instantaneously, whereas transfers involving fiat currency or personal property can take much longer, making crypto-related forfeiture an appealing mechanism for authorities.

In order to forfeit cryptoassets, U.S. authorities generally first trace the cryptoassets and transactions using publicly available blockchain information and analytics tools to identify relevant information, such as the dates and amounts of transactions and the origination and destination public address(es). If needed, agents can then issue subpoenas to financial institutions, virtual-currency exchanges or other third-party intermediaries to obtain relevant records.

This approach got a boost in 2020, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held in United States v. Gratkowski that federal agents did not need to first obtain a warrant based on probable cause to subpoena bitcoin records.2 In Gratowski, the federal agents used forensic software to extract suspicious addresses from the bitcoin blockchain and then subpoenaed a virtual currency exchange to trace the customers who had made bitcoin payments to those suspicious addresses.

The court held that “a person generally has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties,” treating bitcoin records kept by the exchange in the same way as customer financial records kept by banks in that bank records are not subject to Fourth Amendment protections.3 The court further held that Gratowski did not have a privacy interest in his information on the bitcoin blockchain since that information is available to every bitcoin user, making it possible to determine the identities of the bitcoin address owner by analyzing the blockchain.4

Armed with this data, authorities can establish the asset’s nexus to criminal activity and its location — information that is required to obtain a search warrant authorizing seizure of the asset. Subsequently, authorities may seize the cryptoasset using such a warrant, or through another method that otherwise fulfils the government’s obligations under the Fourth Amendment (searches and seizures), such as with the owner’s consent. Forfeiture proceedings are then required so that the title to the seized assets can be permanently transferred to the government. Cryptoassets can be forfeited via administrative, civil judicial or criminal judicial forfeiture, as discussed below.

U.S. authorities are increasingly working with cryptoasset and blockchain analytics firms to use advanced technologies to uncover illicit activity and identify linked actors, in addition to crime proceeds and other forfeitable assets. Since 2017, federal agencies including the DEA, DHS, IRS, FBI and CFTC have spent millions of dollars on third-party cryptoasset tracing and blockchain analytic tools.5

These technologies have already been put to use at a large scale. For example, in November 2020, using blockchain forensics, the DOJ and IRS identified and retrieved, through a civil forfeiture action, $1 billion worth of illicit bitcoin stolen from Silk Road more than seven years earlier.

More recently, in February 2022, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that the government’s use of reliable blockchain analysis software that traced the flow of stolen digital currency to the investigation’s targets supported probable cause for a search warrant.6 The court further highlighted that such software was becoming commonplace for law enforcement to track financial crimes, noting that this sort of analysis had demonstrated an “unprecedented rate of success” when compared to human informants, bolstered by the software’s “lack of incentive or capacity to lie.”7

This ruling was in accord with the New York State Department of Financial Services’ April 2022 guidance stating that cryptocurrency firms should use blockchain analytics tools to help mitigate and manage financial risk, and to meet AML and sanctions-related compliance requirements.

U.S. authorities are also working to increase cooperation with foreign authorities to identify and trace cryptoassets that may be subject to forfeiture. For example, on 5 April 2022, the DOJ announced the seizure of Hydra Market, the world’s largest and longest-running darknet market. The Hydra servers and cryptocurrency wallets containing $25 million worth of bitcoin were seized in Germany by the German Federal Criminal Police (the Bundeskriminalamt), in coordination with multiple U.S. agencies, including the DEA, DHS, USPIS, FBI, IRS, DOJ’s Office of International Affairs, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the NCET.

Administrative Forfeiture

Many federal law enforcement agencies are authorized to seize cryptoassets valued at less than or equal to $500,000 at the time of seizure via an administrative forfeiture procedure without judicial approval. The agency involved seizes the asset, provides notice to potential claimants, and processes any claims to the assets. Any timely and legally valid claims are referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which must then commence a civil forfeiture action in federal court. In the absence of any such claims, the agency can complete the forfeiture without judicial involvement. Assets with a timely and legally valid claim to them, or those valued at more than $500,000, must be forfeited via a civil or criminal forfeiture action.

The DEA, DHS and USPIS have all successfully seized and obtained legal title to cryptocurrency via administrative forfeiture in the past.8

Criminal Forfeiture

Criminal judicial forfeiture actions are in personam (against the person) actions against a defendant where only property in which the defendant has a true interest may be forfeited. A criminal forfeiture proceeding starts by adding a forfeiture allegation to a charging document and requires that the defendant be convicted of an offense that allows the forfeiture of property. The government must establish by a preponderance of the evidence the requisite connection between the crime of conviction and the asset. Crimes such as those involving money laundering and various types of fraud and counterfeiting allow criminal forfeiture. A separate ancillary proceeding follows to determine any third-party ownership interests in the property that the government seeks to forfeit.

In what is believed to be the largest cryptocurrency fraud ever charged criminally, in November 2021, a district court granted the DOJ’s request to liquidate $57 million in cryptocurrency seized from Glenn Acaro, the top North American promoter of the cryptocurrency bitconnect. Acaro pled guilty to participating in a conspiracy that defrauded investors of over $2 billion. In the charging document, the DOJ sought criminal forfeiture pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §982(a)(2)(A) and 28 U.S.C. §2461(c) of the fraudulently obtained proceeds in Acaro’s possession, the majority of which were held in cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin, ethereum, litecoin, dash and several others.9

Civil Judicial Forfeiture

Civil judicial forfeiture actions are in rem court proceedings brought against property that was derived from or used to commit an offense, rather than against a person who committed an offense. Unlike criminal forfeiture, no criminal conviction is required. The government must still prove that the property was linked to criminal activity by a preponderance of the evidence.

This proceeding allows the court to gather everyone with an interest in the property and resolve all the claims to it in one proceeding.

Not only does this procedure require a lower burden of proof; it allows the government to reach more property than criminal forfeiture. This includes property of criminals located outside the U.S., such as terrorists and fugitives. It also permits recovery of assets held by deceased defendants, or where no defendant can be identified since the action is against the asset itself.

The government’s notice requirement for in rem forfeiture proceedings can be met if the government attempts to provide actual notice. In United States v. Twenty-Four Cryptocurrency Accounts, for example, it was held that the government provided sufficient notice to the public and to potential claimants of its forfeiture action in rem against cryptocurrency accounts allegedly used in connection with a child pornography website where the government had sent direct notice via certified mail or email to potential claimants who could be identified by currency exchange information; sent notice an additional time when emails or certified letters were returned as undeliverable; and posted a public notice on an official government forfeiture website for 30 consecutive days.10

The IRS and DHS enlisted the help of South Korean law enforcement to seize the servers and related materials, which were located in South Korea. A review of the seized materials revealed bitcoin transactions, which allowed law enforcement to obtain a warrant and seize all 24 related cryptocurrency accounts.11 The court granted the government’s motion for default judgment for the forfeiture of all 24 accounts.

UK Enforcement Procedures Applicable to Cryptoassets

In the U.K., regulation of cryptoassets has likewise become a focus for regulators and law enforcement agencies. Under the FCA’s scrutiny, crypto-related firms now face a new requirement to register in the U.K., and cryptoasset firms must comply with anti-money laundering (AML) regulations, and are subject to the FCA’s enforcement powers. Between January 10, 2020, and October 20, 2020, alone, the FCA opened 39 inquiries into cryptoasset businesses. In March 2022, the FCA announced that, between September 2021 and March 2022, it had opened 300 investigations into unauthorized cryptoasset operators. Echoing the FCA’s commitment, the U.K. Serious Fraud Office (SFO) announced in its 2021/22 Business Plan that the “growth of cryptocurrency” would be one of its key focus areas.

In March 2022, U.K. regulators issued a joint statement signaling that financial sanctions do not differentiate between cryptoassets and other types of assets. The statement made clear that the use of cryptoassets to circumvent economic sanctions is a criminal offense under the Money Laundering Regulations 2017 and regulations made under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. The FCA confirmed that it had written to all registered cryptoasset firms and those holding temporary registration status to highlight the application of sanctions to various entities and individuals.

More recently, the May 2022 Queen’s Speech outlined a new Economic Crime Bill under which the authorities will gain more tools to halt illicit finance in the U.K., including the power to seize cryptoassets. No implementation timetable has been provided yet.

Criminal Forfeiture

There are a number of tools available to U.K. law enforcement to address cryptoasset-related crime. These include orders to restrain, seize, forfeit and confiscate assets, as well as orders to obtain information about potential wrongdoers.

Law enforcement can secure a restraint order under s41 Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA) to prohibit a person from dealing with any “realisable property” held by them, provided that certain conditions are met. This includes, for example, where a criminal investigation or proceedings relating to an offense have started in England and Wales and there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the alleged offender has benefitted from his criminal conduct.

A restraint order freezes assets wherever in the world they are and prevents assets from being moved or dissipated. Given the nature of the order, it is usually obtained without notice to a defendant. Non-compliance with a restraint order is a contempt of court, and in extreme cases, may be treated as perverting the course of justice.

In a mark of flexibility, courts have found cryptocurrency to meet the definition of “realisable property” for the purposes of POCA. In the recent case of Lavinia Deborah Osbourne v (1) Persons Unknown (2) Ozone Networks Inc. trading as Opensea [2022],12 the High Court recognized NFTs as legal property over which a freezing injunction could be ordered, thereby extending to NFTs the courts’ previous framing of cryptocurrencies as proprietary assets. The NFTs here were two unique digital artworks, stolen from the claimant’s digital wallet in January 2022, and traced to two wallets. An urgent freezing order was granted in March 2022, freezing the assets until the end of proceedings. This landmark case confirmed that NFTs should be treated as standalone assets, separate from the underlying pieces that they represent.

English courts have been willing to grant not only restraint and freezing orders relating to cryptoassets, but also confiscation orders where certain conditions are met, namely:

  • a defendant is convicted for an offense in proceedings before the Crown Court, or committed to the Crown Court for sentencing and/or confiscation, and
  • the prosecutor asks for a confiscation order to be made, or the court believes it is appropriate for it to do so.

When making a confiscation order, the court must decide whether the defendant has a criminal lifestyle and whether he has benefitted from general or particular criminal conduct.

In R v Teresko [2018],13 the defendant was convicted of drug and money-laundering offenses. In related restraint proceedings, the police were permitted to restrain the defendant’s cryptoassets and convert seized bitcoin into sterling. The court subsequently made a confiscation order over the defendant’s bitcoin, worth £975,000.

Similarly, in R v West [2019],14 the defendant was convicted of hacking into company databases, selling the data on the dark web and converting the funds into cryptocurrency. He was ordered to pay a confiscation order that included cryptocurrency valued at £922,978.

Together, these examples reflect that English courts are prepared to use conventional tools in novel contexts in aid of criminal justice.

However, challenges may arise when it comes to enforcement. For example, successful seizure of cryptoassets usually depends on obtaining the owner’s private key. Prosecutors are likely to have greater success in obtaining a private key where it is held by a bank or crypto exchange on a person’s behalf. However, where the key is held by the individual owner, the prosecutor may have to rely on the cooperation of the defendant or further court proceedings.

In Ireland, the so-called “Fishing Rod Case”15 demonstrated the challenges that can arise in seizing cryptoassets without the private key. A defendant hid the key for his cryptoassets, worth an estimated £45 million, in a fishing box that was thrown away by his landlord while he was in police custody. While the digital wallets were seized by the Irish state, without the secure key, the assets are unobtainable.

Another key challenge is the issue of anonymity. Cryptoassets are attractive for unlawful conduct because they can be held and transferred anonymously. Unless there is proof a defendant is dealing or concealing illegal cryptoassets, the court may find it difficult to make an order. In Teresko, the key for the defendant’s bitcoin wallet was found during a search of his property, and in West, the defendant was arrested while he was using his computer, allowing the police to access his virtual wallet and provide evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service.

It is not just cryptocurrency that can be seized. On February 13, 2022, Her Majesty’s Royal Customs (HMRC) used its POCA powers to seize NFTs as part of a £1.4 million VAT fraud investigation that involved around 250 allegedly fake companies. HMRC was the first U.K. agency to seize an NFT. HMRC Deputy Director Economic Crime Nick Sharp said this confiscation case should deter the view that cryptoassets serve “to hide money from HMRC.”

Civil Asset Recovery Enforcement Actions

Alongside the criminal orders under POCA, U.K. law enforcement also has the power to recover assets in the civil courts on the civil standard (i.e., balance of probabilities) under POCA. A prosecutor can seek a civil recovery order, which provides that specific property is recoverable on the basis that is represents the proceeds of unlawful conduct. In effect, this is a confiscation order without the triggering conviction.

DPP v Briedis and Reskajs [2021]16 is a prime example of this procedure in action. There the Director of Public Prosecutions sought a freezing order under s245A POCA (civil recovery powers) against two respondents covering cash in various currencies, money in bank accounts, personal items and cryptocurrency. The court was satisfied that cryptocurrencies fell within the wide definition of “other intangible property” under POCA s316(4).

That case referred to the reasoning in AA v Persons Unknown [2019],17 in which the claimant paid a bitcoin ransom to a hacker in exchange for decryption software and, following recovery of the encrypted files, the claimant took steps to recover the ransom. Given that the court in this case was prepared to recognize cryptocurrency as property under POCA provisions related to property freezing orders, it is likely that a civil recovery order could also have been obtained over it.

Going further, if a prosecutor obtained a civil recovery order, it could, in theory, also obtain an Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO) on cryptoassets pursuant to s362A POCA. However, they are unlikely to be the tool of first choice, given that cryptoassets are less readily identifiable than a tangible asset. A UWO application requires a description of the property and the suspected owner, which may be difficult in cryptoasset cases.

Conclusion

The trend toward greater regulation of cryptoassets and more enforcement in cases of wrongdoing is likely to continue as authorities respond to the growth in cryptoasset use. Commenting on the high degree of fraud involving the asset class, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce said at a conference in May 2022 that the United States has “dropped the regulatory ball” and has “got to get working” to target fraud and play a more positive role in cryptocurrency innovation.

To manage cryptoasset-related legal and compliance risk stemming from efforts to seize and forfeit cryptoassets, organizations can take a number of steps including:

  • Organizations should ensure they have clear procedures in place to deal with subpoenas and other court orders, both civil and criminal, that can be obtained regarding cryptoasset-related wrongdoing. Those within an organization responsible for handling such orders should be trained to respond promptly and properly.
  • Cryptoasset businesses should promote a culture of compliance and ensure company-wide awareness of legal and compliance requirements with clear, tone-from-the-top messaging.
  • Businesses should be sure to include potential cryptoasset-related crime when conducting risk assessments, and compliance programs should include efforts to mitigate against the risks identified through the assessments, including the risk that cryptoassets will be subject to seizure or forfeiture by government authorities or in connection with private litigation.

This memorandum is provided by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and its affiliates for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed as legal advice. This memorandum is considered advertising under applicable state laws.


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Police: Man nabbed in stolen rental car in Hempfield was awaiting sentencing in bank robberies

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A former McCandless man awaiting sentencing for a string of bank robberies in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties was arrested this week after authorities said he led police on a chase in a stolen rental car.

Dylan M. Poole, 28, was scheduled to be sentenced in September in federal court in connection with the bank robberies, but a warrant was issued for his arrest after he violated conditions of his pretrial release in that case, according to court filings.

North Huntingdon police reported to state police on Tuesday they were involved in a pursuit just before 7 p.m. with Poole. Officers notified state police that Poole was wanted on numerous warrants, including by the U.S. Marshals, and that they terminated the chase when he entered the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

About two hours later, a trooper spotted the Nissan Versa that Poole was driving on Route 30 in Hempfield and pulled it over. Authorities determined the car was stolen and had a registration plate from another vehicle. Federal court records showed that Poole was accused of renting the vehicle Aug. 2 and never returning it.

North Huntingdon police charged him with theft, receiving stolen property and driving on a suspended license. State police filed additional charges Tuesday. Poole was being held on a combined $75,000 bail in the two cases.

He did not have an attorney listed in those cases. Preliminary hearings are set for Oct. 11 and 12.

A new sentencing date has not been set in the federal case. He pleaded guilty in March to three counts of bank robbery and one count of attempted bank robbery.

Poole was indicted in 2018 after FBI agents thwarted a robbery at a PNC Bank branch in Unity.

Prosecutors said that on Nov. 8, 2018, Poole took $2,030 from a teller at WesBanco Bank in McCandless after handing her a note demanding cash. The next day, authorities said he got about $2,300 from a teller at a Donegal PNC Bank branch after handing over another note.

On Nov. 13, he was accused of fleeing with about $1,000 from a First National Bank branch in Wexford. FBI agents tracked Poole’s vehicle from that robbery and set up surveillance at his home. He was arrested two days later after he entered the Unity bank with a note demanding money, according to court papers.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta by email at rsignorini@triblive.com or via Twitter .




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In Brazil, a grieving mother takes police killings to court

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On the day she was to face her son’s killers, Glaucia dos Santos rose early, smoothed her hair into a ponytail and donned a T-shirt emblazoned with a single word: “Gratitude.”

It may have seemed like a surprising choice given what she was about to do: travel three hours by bus from her home on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to a downtown courthouse, where the two police officers who had gunned down her 17-year-old in 2014 were being tried for murder.

But she felt lucky.

A group of women in a room.

Glaucia dos Santos, second from right, with supporters. Her eight-year battle for a day in court has come amid a surge of killings by police that has made Brazil’s law enforcement agencies among the world’s most lethal.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In Brazil, where even the most egregious abuses by police are rarely punished, trials like this one were practically unheard of. Against all odds, and thanks only to her own dogged detective work, Dos Santos now had a shot at justice.

Her eight-year battle for a day in court had come amid a surge of killings by police that had made Brazil’s law enforcement agencies among the world’s most lethal.

Police killed 6,145 people here last year, according to the nonprofit Brazilian Forum on Public Safety — an average of almost 17 a day and nearly triple the 2013 total.

Taking population size into account, officers killed at roughly nine times the rate of U.S. law enforcement.

People walk along a street.

Most killings by police take place in favelas, former squatter settlements founded by ex-slaves that remain predominantly Black and have few state services and a heavy gang presence.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In Rio de Janeiro state, killings by police accounted for nearly a third of all homicides. Most took place in favelas, former squatter settlements founded by ex-slaves that remain predominantly Black today and have few state services and a heavy gang presence.

The rise in police violence has been celebrated by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pushed for laws that would provide immunity for officers who commit homicide in the line of duty and declared that “a policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”

His challenger in Sunday’s presidential election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has said little about the issue, with some political observers concluding that he is wary of conflict with the police because of the possibility that they could back Bolsonaro in an attempt to steal the election. Still, if Lula, as he is known, becomes president, as polls suggest he will, he will face pressure from segments of his base who have become increasingly vocal about the need for police reform.

Though officers almost always defend their killings as acts of self-defense against armed criminals, human rights groups and journalists have documented a pattern of excessive use of force, including summary executions of people who are unarmed or injured.

A report by the United Nations this year said Brazil’s security strategy demonstrates an “unconscionable disregard for human life,” and highlighted a deep racial disparity. Black people make up 55% of Brazil’s population, but 84% of the people police killed last year.

When Dos Santos, who is Black, lost her only son, Fabricio, she was thrust into a new role in her community. Each time another young man died, his mother would come to her for comfort and advice. As the years wore on, a WhatsApp group of grieving mothers that she had created came to include about a dozen neighbors and even her own sister.

Photos of those killed by police.

At left, photos of people killed by police are displayed at a protest. Glaucia dos Santos, right, attends a protest with other mothers and family members of those killed by police.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

At the courthouse last month, Dos Santos, 46, was accompanied by several of them, each clutching a photograph of their own dead child. For many, Fabricio’s case had become deeply personal because they knew they were unlikely to ever get their own day in court.

Sun streaked through the clouds as the women stood shoulder to shoulder chanting Fabricio’s name and the thing they all wanted: “Justiça.”

“The police are supposed to protect,” Dos Santos told a crowd of people who had stopped to watch the impromptu protest, her voice trembling. “We want you to stop killing us.”

Then she and the rest of the women filed into the courthouse.

Dos Santos knew it was never going to be easy raising a son in the favela.

Her community, Chapadão, is a labyrinth of small homes made of unpainted brick and corrugated tin roofs stretching across hillsides on the far north side of Rio.

Fabricio’s father, a former soldier, left when he was a baby, and his mother worked as a housekeeper. When Fabricio was 3, he was hit by a truck speeding through the neighborhood, leaving him with a permanent limp.

People walk in a neighborhood.

A report by the United Nations this year said Brazil’s security strategy demonstrates an “unconscionable disregard for human life,” and highlighted a deep racial disparity. Black people make up 55% of Brazil’s population, but 84% of the people police killed last year.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

For her shy son, who dreamed of being a mechanical engineer, life’s biggest preoccupation wasn’t the cruel taunts of classmates or even the gangs who peddled drugs in the streets. It was the police.

Officers hassled him at a local arcade and at a bus stop on his way to a job painting houses in Copacabana. Once he was hauled into a police station for riding in a car the police said had been stolen, until they changed their story and let him go.

A woman holds a banner with a photo of her son.

Glaucia dos Santos holds a banner with pictures of her slain son, Fabricio.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

His mother counseled him and his two younger sisters to always keep their cool when police were involved: “Never talk back to them. Don’t let yourself react.”

But Fabricio was terrified of the cops, who had a reputation for brutality in the favelas dating back to the 1970s, when the government launched a war on drugs and started going after the gangs that had formed in Brazil’s prisons and were now entrenched in many poor neighborhoods.

A truck passes people carrying a body.

Police in a Rio de Janeiro favela pass residents carrying the body of a man killed in a police raid.

(Mauro Pimental / AFP via Getty Images)

Guns can be see in a police car.

Police in Brazil killed 6,145 people last year, an average of almost 17 a day and nearly triple the 2013 total.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

There have been short-lived attempts at police reform, including the introduction of community policing units in some favelas in the few years leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Rio.

Though those efforts reduced killings by police for several years, the special units never arrived in Chapadão, and eventually they were abandoned altogether. The killings started to climb again — it was not uncommon for 20 people to die in a single afternoon when police raided their favela.

A finger points at an autopsy report.

Daniel Lozoya, a public defender, displays an autopsy report showing where Fabricio dos Santos was shot in the head by police officers.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

By law, police can use lethal force only to confront an “imminent threat.”

“But in the streets, the law is different,” said Daniel Lozoya, a public defender in Rio de Janeiro. “He’s Black, he’s poor, so the police shoot.”

As dawn broke on Jan. 1, 2014, two police officers sat down with a police investigator to explain how and why they had just killed a young man. It was the protocol any time an officer used lethal force.

The cops, Victor Declie de Souza, who is white and was 31 at the time, and Paulo Renato do Nascimento Pires, who is Black and was 38, said they had been patrolling near Chapadão a little before 3 a.m. when three men on two motorcycles started firing at them.

The police said they chased the assailants about a mile to a gas station, where Declie used a rifle to shoot one driver as the other alleged attackers sped away.

The officers said they found a Glock pistol next to the body of the person they shot, who would later be identified as Fabricio dos Santos. They said he was still alive when they loaded his body into their car to take him to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

Investigators did not visit the crime scene because the neighborhood was “too dangerous,” according to records. No forensic analysis was conducted to show whether Fabricio had ever fired the gun. Police never sought witnesses to interview.

A man sits at a tabe.

Paulo Renato do Nascimento Pires, one of the two police officers facing charges in the killing of Fabricio dos Santos.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The case could have ended there, like the vast majority of incidents in which police kill civilians here.

The attorney general’s office in Rio de Janeiro state said it does not track how many cases are brought against police officers. But multiple independent studies have shown that charges are filed in fewer than 1% of killings by police.

Marfan Martins Vieira, a former attorney general, told human rights investigators that he believes that many of the alleged shootouts between cops and civilians are “simulated” — meaning that only the police fired — but that poor-quality investigations leave prosecutors without enough information to prove it.

Cesar Muñoz, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said prosecutors have the legal authority to investigate police abuse — and must.

“The police are not capable of investigating themselves,” he said.

A woman weeps.

Glaucia dos Santos weeps while talking about her son. “The police are supposed to protect,” she said. “We want you to stop killing us.”

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Dos Santos thought the police were lying. Her son, she told investigators, had never held a gun in his life. And she had seen him head to the gas station alone, after celebrating the new year with his girlfriend. Besides, she and her neighbors hadn’t heard a shootout, just a single shot.

She was three months pregnant and battling morning sickness, but she was determined to get to the truth. “It was the least I could do for him,” she said.

After identifying Fabricio’s body, she went to the gas station, where she found employees who had been there during the killing. They shared evidence that would separate Fabricio’s case from the many others in which it is the word of a witness against the word of police: surveillance footage.

The grainy video shows Fabricio filling up his tank, putting air in his tires and preparing to exit the gas station when a police cruiser pulls up. Fabricio turns his motorcycle around and begins driving away from the cruiser. His mother thinks he probably turned because he didn’t have a driver’s license, and didn’t want trouble.

The cruiser follows him, and then, with Fabricio off screen but the vehicle still in the frame, there is a flash of light — a single shot from a rifle.

It was still January when Dos Santos took the video to the media. Soon, news crews were filming the small protests she organized in her neighborhood.

Under growing pressure, prosecutors announced that June that they were charging the two officers with murder, accusing them of fabricating the story of the shootout and planting the gun on Fabricio.

“This is very rare, that an officer actually has to answer for his actions in court.”

— Maria Julia Miranda, public defender

The officers were allowed to keep working, although they were assigned administrative tasks.

Dos Santos knew she had a long road ahead. In Brazil it can take as long as a decade for a murder case to wind its way through court.

Every few months she trekked downtown for another hearing. Years passed before a judge decided that the case deserved to go before a jury. It took months more for another judge to weigh the defendants’ appeal to that decision.

As she exited the courthouse one day in 2016, Dos Santos noticed a group of women protesting on the sidewalk. One of them was talking about her 19-year-old, whom the police had killed with a shot in the back.

People look at photos on the ground.

Photos of people killed by police are displayed outside a courthouse in Rio de Janeiro.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

For Dos Santos, joining the city’s burgeoning movement of mothers who had lost children to police bullets was like finding family.

Elsewhere, police violence was starting to receive major attention. In 2014, protesters had taken to the streets of Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of a Black 18-year-old named Michael Brown. A hashtag was spreading on the internet: #BlackLivesMatter.

In Brazil, the movement was growing, but more slowly.

Though slavery lasted here until 1888, longer than anywhere else in the Americas, Brazil never had formal segregation like in the United States, and the country had long viewed its history more through the lens of class than race.

Among the key figures in the burgeoning antiracism movement was Rio de Janeiro City Councilwoman Marielle Franco. A single mother from a favela not far from Chapadão, she was passionate about stopping abuse by police, whom she accused of acting like death squads.

In March 2018, she tweeted about a killing in a favela: “They come to carve up the population! They come to kill our young!” A few days later, she and her driver were shot to death in downtown Rio.

The two men charged with her murder are former Rio police officers. They are still awaiting trial.

Franco’s death intensified calls for reform. But the movement also sparked backlash.

Some argued that there couldn’t be a racial element to the killings, given that about 45% of Brazil’s police are Black. Others said tough policing was necessary, given Brazil’s battle against violent crime.

Still, killings by police were climbing far faster than homicides overall. And as homicides started to dip from their 2017 peak of 64,078, law enforcement kept killing in increasing numbers.

The trend was most extreme in Rio, where the police found an ally in Bolsonaro, who was a congressman at the time.

Men stand side by side.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, center, has pushed for laws that would provide immunity for officers who commit homicide in the line of duty. He is up for reelection on Sunday.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

His pledge to crush criminals with an iron fist helped win him a national following and propel him to the presidency.

Shortly after taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro pushed legislation to shield security forces who shoot from prosecution, vowing that criminals “are going to die in the streets like cockroaches … how it should be.” The legislation failed to pass, but many worried that the president’s rhetoric encouraged police to act violently.

During his four years in office, killings by police have hovered around their all-time high.

“A policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”

— President Jair Bolsonaro

Dos Santos remained undeterred, despite the costs. When she felt guilty about how her focus on the case meant she had less time for her three daughters, she told herself she was doing it for them and the other children of the favela.

She also came to believe that her activism was putting her own life in danger.

One friend from the favela who had lost a son to police bullets and who had worked to get a particularly violent police officer moved out of their neighborhood faced death threats and fled.

“The police come here to hunt,” said the man, who did not give his name out of fear of retaliation. “Now I have no dignity. I have no life. I’m a fugitive.”

Dos Santos’ case had crawled along for eight years. But finally, it was a nearing a decision.

In Brazil, prosecutors and the defense lay out the details of their cases first for a judge, and then do it again before a jury in a rapid-fire trial that can reach conclusion in a single day.

A few days before the jury trial was set to begin, Dos Santos stood at the entrance to her favela waiting for the arrival of Guilherme Pimentel, the ombudsman from the Rio public defender’s office. His taxi finally pulled up, and the two embraced.

People talk.

Guilherme Pimentel, center, ombudsman of the public defender’s office of Rio de Janeiro, meets with Glaucia dos Santos, far right, and others.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Dos Santos had spent the morning walking the neighborhood to get permission from gang leaders to let Pimentel and a small delegation of government human rights officials enter the community.

They passed a checkpoint manned by an armed guard and settled down in red plastic chairs arranged in a circle on the patio of a cafe. “We want to know what has been happening here and how we can help,” Pimentel began.

A man stands in a street.

Ronaldo Lacerda’s 21-year-old cousin was recently killed by police.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Ronaldo Lacerda, a 28-year-old funk DJ with dyed-orange hair, described the recent shooting death of his 21-year-old cousin.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I should be dead too.”

Dos Santos was upset that Lacerda and his friends had protested the killing by setting a bus on fire.

“It’s fair to rebel. I understand,” Dos Santos said. “But you’ve got to have a strategy. One guy lights a bus on fire, and then that’s what ends up being showed on TV. They will use that image in the trial.”

The young man nodded.

Three women stand in a street.

Maria Julia Miranda, left, a public defender, talks with Sonia Bonfim Vicente, center, and another woman. Bonfim’s husband and son were killed by police.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Sonia Bonfim Vicente, 37, spoke next. Her husband and son were taking the son’s girlfriend to the hospital last year on a motorbike when all three were shot by police. Only the girlfriend survived.

As Bonfim talked about her son, Samuel, who was due to enlist in the military the day after he was killed, Dos Santos reached out and took her arm.

A public defender jotted down Bonfim’s information. But she cautioned the crowd against too much hope.

 A woman and a child.

Sonia Bonfim Vicente with her daughter, Anna Thereza, 5.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“She’s an exception,” the public defender, Maria Julia Miranda, said of Dos Santos. “This is very rare, that an officer actually has to answer for his actions in court.”

Inside the courthouse, Dos Santos was whisked away to an area for people who would testify. She would be called as a character witness, and to describe the last time she had seen Fabricio, driving off alone.

A man talks to reporters.

Cassiano Pereira, an attorney for one of the accused police officers, explains to reporters what his client said happened on the night that Fabricio dos Santos was shot and killed.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The officers each faced seven years in prison if convicted of both murder and fraud for having planted the gun.

An attorney for one of them said the pair would argue that they were fired upon by suspects on two motorcycles, even if no witness saw that and it wasn’t visible in the video.

The rest of the mothers gathered outside the courtroom, waiting to be let in. But 30 minutes passed. Then an hour. The mothers nervously sipped plastic cups of coffee.

Eventually, Dos Santos came back, her shoulders slumped. A lawyer for one of the defendants hadn’t showed up. The judge had postponed the trial until April.

Three women embrace.

Glaucia dos Santos is comforted by supporters.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Dos Santos had briefly stood in the same room as the officers, who were not in uniform.

“They assured me they are not working in the streets,” she said.

“At least they’re not killing anyone,” one woman muttered.

“We have to come back next year and come back with more people,” another woman told her.

Dos Santos went out the way she had come. The sky had clouded over and wind was picking up. A few fat raindrops fell as she and her sister said goodbye to the other mothers and boarded a bus that would take them back to the favela.


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Human smuggling, forced labor among allegations in south Georgia federal indictment | USAO-SDGA

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INDICTMENT: USA v. Patricio et al, Operation Blooming Onion: 521cr9.pdf

WAYCROSS, GA:  Two dozen defendants have been indicted on federal conspiracy charges after a transnational, multi-year investigation into a human smuggling and labor trafficking operation that illegally imported Mexican and Central American workers into brutal conditions on South Georgia farms.

The newly unsealed, 54-count indictment in USA v. Patricio et al. details felony charges resulting from Operation Blooming Onion, an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) investigation. The multi-agency investigation, led by Homeland Security Investigations and other federal agencies, spans at least three years, and the 53-page indictment documents dozens of victims of modern-day slavery while spelling out the illegal acts that brought these exploited workers into the United States and imprisoned them under inhumane conditions as contract agricultural laborers, said David H. Estes, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.

“The American dream is a powerful attraction for destitute and desperate people across the globe, and where there is need, there is greed from those who will attempt to exploit these willing workers for their own obscene profits,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Estes. “Thanks to outstanding work from our law enforcement partners, Operation Blooming Onion frees more than 100 individuals from the shackles of modern-day slavery and will hold accountable those who put them in chains.”

“OCDETF Operation Blooming Onion maximized the expertise of multiple law enforcement agencies and leveraged analytical and coordination support from OCDETF’s International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center (IOC-2) to target an international criminal organization engaged in human trafficking and visa fraud,” said OCDETF Director Adam W. Cohen. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office’s leadership of this multi-agency law enforcement effort positions us to disrupt and dismantle the operations of transnational criminal networks that pose the greatest threat to our communities and to the Nation.”

As described in the indictment, investigators from Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the FBI began investigating the Patricio transnational criminal organization in November 2018. The indictment alleges that in or before 2015, the conspirators and their associates “engaged in mail fraud, international forced labor trafficking, and money laundering, among other crimes,” fraudulently using the H-2A work visa program to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras into the United States under the pretext of serving as agricultural workers.

The activities took place within the Southern, Middle, and Northern Districts of Georgia; the Middle District of Florida; the Southern District of Texas; and Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and elsewhere. The conspirators required the workers to pay unlawful fees for transportation, food, and housing while illegally withholding their travel and identification documents, and subjected the workers “to perform physically demanding work for little or no pay, housing them in crowded, unsanitary, and degrading living conditions, and by threatening them with deportation and violence.”  

Exploitation of the workers included being required to dig onions with their bare hands, paid 20 cents for each bucket harvested, and threatened with guns and violence to keep them in line. The workers were held in cramped, unsanitary quarters and fenced work camps with little or no food, limited plumbing and without safe water. The conspirators are accused of raping, kidnapping and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers or their families, and in many cases sold or traded the workers to other conspirators. At least two of the workers died as a result of workplace conditions. In the Southern District of Georgia, these activities were alleged to have taken place in the counties of Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware as farmers paid the conspirators to provide contract laborers.    

The conspirators are alleged to have reaped more than $200 million from the illegal scheme, laundering the funds through cash purchases of land, homes, vehicles, and businesses; through cash purchases of cashier’s checks; and by funneling millions of dollars through a casino.

Then, as the continuing investigation into the conspiracy moved forward in late 2019, the indictment alleges that three of the conspirators attempted to intimidate and persuade a witness to lie to a federal grand jury and deny any knowledge of the illegal activities of the Patricio organization.

More than 200 law enforcement officers and federal agents from around the United States convened in the Southern District of Georgia to execute more than 20 federal search warrants at target locations.

Those indicted in USA v. Patricio et al. and their charges include:

  • Maria Leticia Patricio, 70, of Nichols, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; two counts of Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Daniel Mendoza, 40, of Ruskin, Fla., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Nery Rene Carrillo-Najarro, 56, Douglas, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; 14 counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Antonio Chavez Ramos, a/k/a “Tony Chavez,” 38, a citizen of Mexico illegally present in the United States, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; four counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • JC Longoria Castro, 46, Vidalia, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; four counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Victoria Chavez Hernandez, 38, a citizen of Mexico illegally present in the United States, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Enrique Duque Tovar, 36, of Axon, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; nine counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Jose Carmen Duque Tovar, 58, of Axon, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; nine counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Charles Michael King, 31, of Waycross, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Stanley Neal McGauley, 38, of Waycross, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Luis Alberto Martinez, a/k/a “Chino Martinez,” 41, of Tifton, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Delia Ibarra Rojas, 33, of Lyons, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; three counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Juana Ibarra Carrillo, 46, of Alma, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Donna Michelle Rojas, a/k/a “Donna Lucio,” 33, of Collins, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; three counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Margarita Rojas Cardenas, a/k/a “Maggie Cardenas,” 43, of Reidsville, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; three counts of Forced Labor; Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering; and Tampering with a Witness;
  • Juan Fransisco Alvarez Campos, 42, a citizen of Mexico illegally present in the United States, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Rosalvo Garcia Martinez, a/k/a “Chava Garcia,” 33, of Haines City, Fla., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering; and Tampering with a Witness;
  • Esther Ibarra Garcia, 63, of Dade City, Fla., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; three counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Rodolfo Martinez Maciel, 26, a citizen of Mexico illegally present in the United States, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; three counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Brett Donavan Bussey, 39, of Tifton, Ga., charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; four counts of Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering; and Tampering with a Witness;
  • Linda Jean Facundo, 36, of Tifton, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Gumara Canela, 34, of Alma, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; 14 counts of Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering;
  • Daniel Merari Canela Diaz, 24, a citizen of Mexico illegally present in the United States, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering; and,
  • Carla Yvonne Salinas, 28, of Laredo, Texas, charged with Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud; Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering.

The charges of Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor, and Forced Labor, each carry statutory penalties of up to life in prison, while the charges of Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud, Mail Fraud, Money Laundering Conspiracy, and Tampering with a Witness each carry statutory penalties of up to 20 years in prison. Each of the charges also include substantial financial penalties and periods of supervised release after completion of any prison term. There is no parole in the federal system.

Criminal indictments contain only charges; defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

The case was investigated under the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) operation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Operation Blooming Onion also is designated as a Priority Transnational Organized Crime Cases.

Agencies investigating Operation Blooming Onion include Homeland Security Investigations; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Fraud Detection and National Security; the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, and Wage and Hour Division; U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service; the FBI; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; and the U.S. Marshals Service, with assistance from the Georgia National Guard; the Georgia Bureau of Investigation; the Georgia State Patrol; the Coffee County Sheriff’s Office; the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office; the Tattnall County Sheriff’s Office; the Bacon County Sheriff’s Office; and the Tift County Sheriff’s Office. The case is being prosecuted for the United States by Assistant U.S. Attorney and Human Trafficking Coordinator Tania D. Groover, and Assistant U.S. Attorney and Criminal Division Deputy Chief E. Greg Gilluly Jr., and Assistant U.S. Attorney Xavier A. Cunningham, Section Chief of the Asset Recovery Unit.

If you believe you have information about a potential trafficking situation call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocates are available 24/7 to take reports of potential human trafficking. All reports are confidential and you may remain anonymous. Interpreters are available.  The information you provide will be reviewed by the National Hotline and forwarded to specialized law enforcement and/or service providers where appropriate. 


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