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2 South Florida men, a gold mine deep in the rain forest and a mother lode of misery


Two émigrés living in South Florida, one a real estate developer and the other a Ferrari-racing chiropractor, are linked to an illicit gold mining operation deep in one of the world’s most unique and diverse biospheres.Their degree of involvement in the Colombian operation worth millions is disputed, but their bizarre saga involves time-immemorial ingredients of “gold fever” — accusations of greed, betrayal and usurpation.Miami resident Hassan Jalali Bidgoli and his business associate Amir Mohit-Kermani — both Iranian émigrés and respectively the developer and the chiropractor — were among 13 people named in a 2018 detention order that sought to question them about illegal mining in Colombia’s remote Chocó region. The broad case is ongoing.

https://edcounsellor.com/blog/2-south-florida-men-a-gold-mine-deep-in-the-rain-forest-and-a-mother-lode-of-misery/

The verdant jungle there in Colombia’s western corner that borders Panama, is unique, say scientists, because a quarter of the birds in the region aren’t found anywhere else on the planet.

For centuries, locals have used bowl-shaped pans called “bateas” to sift for the gold strands that put food on the table. In recent years this has given way to illegal operations with dredging barges — dubbed “dragons” — that uproot the way of life, destroy swathes of nature, contaminate drinking water with mercury and deny the locals sustenance.

Global Finance Integrity, a non-profit group that analyzes flows of illicit money, estimates that Colombia exported about $1.75 billion in gold in 2019. Using satellite imagery the group estimated that 66% of that production was illegal, lacking land titles and/or regulatory permitsChocó topped all Colombian departments, or states.

The detention order of 2018 was part of a broader case file, where authorities said “mining activities were initiated in Colombia’‘ by the two Miami men. It suggested they were on the front end of what grew into an illicit operation.

The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and the McClatchy Washington Bureau joined investigative forces with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Colombian outlets Cuestión Pública and La Liga Contra el Silencio.

The joint investigation sheds light on gold operations in a remote area of Colombia, known for its Afro-Colombian heritage but plagued today by the remnants of guerrilla groups that operate as criminal organizations. Mined gold and platinum have become another source of illicit income for them.

“These mafias are involved in different areas — cocaine, and also illegal mining. And it’s clear for us that so many minerals, which are very expensive in the international market … these people are using this opportunity with very high prices on the international market,” Marta Lucía Ramírez, Colombia’s foreign minister, said in an interview.

Mauricio Cabrera, mining policy coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund’s Colombia office, confirmed that Chocó’s illegal mining industry is controlled by “mafia-like groups” that in turn make protection payments to the local armed groups that control the area.

That’s why it was notable that the names of Jalali and Mohit-Kermani appeared in the same capture order as five people who have since been convicted of illegal mining and environmental damage in Chocó.

The illicit operation in question spanned June 2013 to December 2018, said Colombian prosecutors. Under Colombia’s legal system, a detention or capture order is issued to bring in someone for questioning. If a judge feels they are a risk or might flee, they can be ordered held while charges are formulated.

At the time the order was issued in 2018, Jalali and Mohit-Kermani hadn’t been in Colombia respectively for two and five years, lawyers for the two Miami men insisted.

But the Miami men were the subjects of a so-called Blue Notice by the international police agency Interpol, which located them in Miami. A Blue Notice is issued when someone is wanted for questioning, but it does not necessarily mean the persons are suspects, although it can also mean that.

ACCIDENTAL INVESTORS?

Jalali and Mohit-Kermani have no criminal history in the United States and both appear successful in their respective fields.

Public records link Jalali, 54, to numerous pricey properties, including a Miami Beach hotel and a home on Venetian Islands. He revamped a chic Miami Beach mansion recently purchased for $7.75 million by Miami Heat guard Victor Oladipo.

Jalali is listed on more than three dozen companies registered with the Florida Division of Corporations over the past two decades, and appears on corporate documents in the tax havens of the Bahamas and Panama. Several Florida companies and at least three in Colombia used the name Tala, which means gold in Farsi, the language spoken in Iran.

Mohit-Kermani, who turns 50 later this month, is a licensed Florida chiropractor with a fondness for Ferraris, even racing for Ferrari of Fort Lauderdale in a dozen Florida races since 2017.

A Miami lawyer for the pair denied his clients had any involvement in illegal mining, and disputed Colombian media accounts. He offered a narrative in which a well-intended loan to a fellow businessman in Miami he identified as Juan Carlos Marulanda led to cascading problems.

Reached seeking a response, Marulanda said there was no loan, rather a $100,000 investment in what was going to be the expansion of a partner’s existing mining operations in Colombia. Marulanda and that partner, Colombian Josecarlo Souffront Mozzicato, separately said in response when asked if they took out a loan that they fled the Andean nation after they felt threatened by a strong-armed debt collection group.

There is little documentation of any of this. All involved claim to no longer have documents from a decade ago, or would not provide them through lawyers. The Miami men, said their lawyer, never engaged “anyone to collect on the loan debt” and “deny any allegation that they were in any way involved in criminal activity.”

But this tangled start eventually led to a lucrative mining operation later declared illicit in Colombia.

Jalali and Mohit-Kermani declined to be interviewed directly. Their U.S. lawyer stressed they no longer had any involvement in any operation by the time Colombian environmental authorities cited the operations in question for environmental atrocities.

“My clients first learned of the Colombian investigation in 2019, when the Colombian press published a false and defamatory front-page story with their respective photographs, accusing them of, among other things, smuggling gold out of Colombia, laundering $50 million. They immediately hired Colombian counsel,” explained David Nuñez , their Coral Gables lawyer,

The problems actually began in June 2017 when local police, soldiers and staff from environmental regulator Codechocó had located three dredges at work illegally in Chocó. The detention, or capture, order was issued on Dec. 5, 2018, for 13 people investigated as part of a criminal mining organization, including Jalali and Mohit-Kermani. Codechocó identified illicit mining in Rio Quito as early as 2013.

Five suspects were captured in December 2018, including Moisés Ortiz Martinez, a relative by marriage of Jalali, who is wed to a Colombian. All five suspects were convicted in 2019 of various crimes, including environmental contamination and illicit mining, and sentenced to four years in prison but none served time.

This screenshot shows the portion of the Colombian prosecutor’s document that notes an illicit mining operation began originally with the creation of companies in Colombia by Miami residents Hassan Jalali Bidgoil and Amir Mohit-Kermani. Through lawyers, the deny involvement in anything beyond providing a loan for import of gold.

Jalali and Mohit-Kermani were initially represented in Colombia by high-profile attorney Diego Cadena, who has drawn criticism at home for defending several Colombian drug traffickers extradited to the United States. Cadena has since been under house arrest this year for allegedly bribing witnesses on behalf of former President Álvaro Uribe, who last year had a street named after him in Miami.

LOAN OR INVESTMENT?

In written responses to questions about how they got involved in miningNuñez explained that his clients Jalali and Mohit-Kermani in 2010 made a loan — amount not specified — to a man he identified as Marulanda.

A general contractor and developer, Jalali had worked on several projects in South Florida with Marulanda, who was a block masonry subcontractor, Nuñez said.

Nuñez did not provide a copy of any loan document or discuss terms or the amount. (He did provide a photocopy of Mohit-Kermani’s passport to show he had not traveled to Colombia in recent years.)

Marulanda told the Miami men that he intended to purchase gold in Colombia and import it into the United States for sale, Nuñez said.

“Messrs. Jalali Bidgoli and Mohit-Kemani (sic) were assured that all proper licenses would be obtained and all applicable laws and regulations would be complied with,” wrote Nuñez. “Notwithstanding, they were not investors in the intended export and subsequent sale of the gold. They simply loaned funds and expected repayment.”

The lawyer said there was never any gold imported by Marulanda, and that six months after the loan Marulanda told them he used the money instead to purchase equipment in Colombia to mine gold. This was without their knowledge, insisted Nuñez, and the pair were told the loan would be paid off in a few months.

After another six months, Nuñez said, Marulanda lacked the funds to repay them and instead offered to transfer his 50% ownership interest in the mining equipment to them and that they could work with his partner, who had experience in mining.

The screenshot from the English-language website of Ferrari shows Amir Kermani, a South Florida chiropracter, as one of the customers who is allowed to race company vehicles at events in North America through a program called Corse Clienti.

They accepted this offer as repayment for the loan, said Nuñez, and the two men were assured by their partner that he would obtain all the proper licenses and permits to operate the mining equipment.

The associate, who lawyers in Miami and Colombia would not identify but said owned the other 50% of Marulanda’s business, then offered to be bought out and the Miami men became full owners of the dredging equipment, Nuñez said. The only money they ever wired partners in Colombia was for that equipment, he said.

Marulanda responded that the $100,000 investment from Jalali and Mohit-Kermani went into a planned gold-mining expansion with him and Souffront, both of whom also invested their own personal savingsSouffront had experience in mining and had an already established gold-buying operation in Chocó to sell to South Florida retailers.

SUNSHINE STATE

Marulanda, Jalali and Mohit-Kermani also appear together on documents for a Florida-incorporated business called Gold Coast Minerals LLC. It was registered in August 2010, the year that the loan or investment was made. The business’ last annual report filed with the Division of Corporations was in April 2011.

Reached abroad where he said he fled after being threatened, a surprised Souffront offered a version of events largely parallel to Marulanda’s — that Jalali and Mohit-Kermani provided capital to expand his existing operations.

Souffront repeated Marulanda’s response that the Miami men used Souffront to learn the ropes and then sought to push him out of his existing gold businesses.

In further response to the claim from the lawyer for the Miami men that he misused their money, Marulanda said he felt the Miami men came after him in Colombia in September 2011 when the investment soured and they couldn’t locate Souffront. Marulanda said he has not spoken to the Miami men since late 2011 after he sold two vehicles in an attempt to pay off some of their investment and fled the country.

Lawyers for the Miami men declined to name the Marulanda associate who gave up the other half of the business, but based on the description of events Souffront believed it was him and a Brazilian associate. Souffront alleged he was approached by strong-arm debt collectors and agreed to “transfer” his operations, he said, in exchange for about 50 million pesos in two Colombian checks, or about $28,400 at the time.

Souffront said he fled Colombia in October 2011, but not before having filed a complaint to a local prosecutor’s office in Medellin. Souffront, who is a lawyer by training, said he no longer had a copy of the filing against Jalali and Mohit-Kermani, but added he was never questioned and received notice in 2013 that the case was closed.

A reluctant and fearful former associate of Souffront and the Miami men, speaking on condition of anonymity, independently supported Souffront’s tale of being forced into a negotiation and stripped of his business

PARADISE LOST

Legal documents in Colombia show Jalali and Mohit-Kermani established two companies in the country in March and December 2011: Talbras SAS, to extract precious metals, and Comercializadora Internacional CI Tala Internacional Trading SAS, to sell them. Colombian court documents cite these companies several times when identifying Jalali and Mohit-Kermani in the broader investigation.

Talbras was eventually managed by Ortiz, the relative of Jalali’s wife. The latter company, said lawyer Nuñez, was created to buy and export gold but after licensing delays was instead used to import resin pellets to make Tupperware-like products and subsequently shut down.

The next regulatory footprint appeared in April 2013, when another Colombian company was created — Vencol Mineral SAS — and it set to work searching for gold.

The disputed version of a loan-gone-bad becomes part of the broader Colombian investigation here. The equipment that lawyers for the Miami men said they fell into was now being used in Chocó’s municipality of Río Quito. Documents for Vencol list Ortiz, Jalali’s relative, as the company’s legal representative and president.

Months later, rumors of mining without a license in a protected area had reached the regional environmental agency Codechocó. Environmental engineer Erbin Rodrigo Velásquez Mosquera was dispatched to investigate in June 2013 and again in 2014.

“We arrived by boat and the first impact we saw was that they had diverted the watercourse,” he told Cuestión Pública. “It was no longer the natural bed of the river, they redirected it … They dried it up [and] they flooded it at their convenience.”

Gone were the trees that lined river banks in Rio Quito, whose town coat of arms shows a rustic pan miner under the words “Honesty and Order.” In their place, said Velásquez, were piles of sediment dredged from the river. Oil slicks sullied the river’s once-clear waters.

Ortiz pleaded guiltywas convicted in Colombia in 2019 for environmental crimes in Chocó and sentenced to four years in prison and a fine of nearly 12 billion pesos, about $3.52 million. On the same day, however, his punishment was commuted to a suspended sentence and a reduced fine. A records request in Colombia by reporting partners showed that nearly four years later that Ortiz’s reduced fine of about $146,000 had not been paid. His confession remains sealed, too, and his Colombian lawyer declined comment when reached by reporters.

Colombian court documents reference a 2016 tax declaration by Vencol’s directors, including Jalali and Ortiz. That would suggest prosecutors believed a company using equipment owned by the Miami men was extracting minerals a year before the government action. Documents also show that in August 2018, Colombian prosecutors were looking at the Miami men’s travel history.

Lawyers for the Miami men maintain the two played no role in any operation.

“The venture was a total loss. Additionally, they had no knowledge of Mr. Ortiz’s use of their equipment for any unauthorized/illegal gold mining activity,” Nuñez said. “A review of the Colombian case against Mr. Ortiz shows that he accepted full responsibility for the illegal mining activity … and that my clients were not involved in the same.”

But Angela Salazar, a lawyer hired by their Colombian companies, insists otherwise. She was a legal advisor to Talbras, something acknowledged by Nuñez, although he said she was fired by Ortiz for stealing from the company. She denies the allegation and has been involved in litigation with the Miami men.

The Miami men “were aware that the operations were illegal because we told them many times that they were incurring many infractions,” Salazar told Cuestión Pública.

Their Miami lawyer responded, “Ms. Salazar’s account is entirely inaccurate. None of it is true. My clients NEVER engaged in mining activity In Colombia, never exported any gold from Colombia, and have not profited from any mining activity or sale of gold within its borders.”

Colombian court documents said that by 2016 the broad illicit mining operation had become an end-to-end mining business that not only dredged gold and platinum from the rain forest, but smelted it and sold it abroad.

The National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA) and Codechocó both confirmed in February letters to Cuestión Pública, the news organization, that the companies involved in the operation were never granted licenses to extract precious metals.

Court documents don’t state how much profit the operation made, but in a story in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, which was vehemently criticized by lawyers for the Miami men, an unidentified police officer estimated the network moved $50 million in precious metals over the years.

EYEING COLOMBIA

Colombia’s judiciary and regulators are in the spotlight. The World Justice Organization’s annual global ranking of countries in its Rule of Law Index ranked Colombia’s judiciary 77th out of 128 nations it surveys. It said Colombia’s criminal justice system lagged neighbors for timely and proper adjudication of cases and had ineffective investigations.

After naming the Miami men in the detention order in 2018, Colombian prosecutors appear to have filed no charges against them, although they could be under seal.

Prosecutors did not close the case, meaning Jalali and Mohit-Kermani are not presently listed as wanted but are also not fully in the clear.

Across the Andes, gold mining has fueled guerrilla conflicts, drug trafficking and more recently has propped up an increasingly isolated Venezuelan government facing global sanctions.

An award-winning Miami Herald series in 2018 about the illicit trade called Dirty Gold, Clean Cash, now the subject of a book, highlighted how Miami is a destination for illicitly mined precious materials, and generates billions of dollars for drug traffickers.

“We are aware of these reports and are monitoring the situation,” a State Department spokesperson said of the ongoing Chocó prosecution, confirming the case is on the radar of diplomats who enforce a bilateral agreement to combat illicit mining.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Cuestión Pública and La Liga Contra el Silencio reported from Colombia. McClatchy Washington Bureau national security reporter Michael Wilner and Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.

 

 

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