Indian American sentenced to nearly 6 years in prison for ‘hawala’ scheme

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Indian American Harinder Singh or “Sonu,” 34, of California, was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison for conspiring to move millions of dollars in proceeds for the Sinaloa cartel and other narcotics traffickers.

According to a Department of Justice press release, Singh was part of an international drug money laundering organization and was sentenced last January after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business.

In addition, Singh was the 17th defendant convicted as a result of a 2015 grand jury indictment that was the first major United States criminal case involving “hawala” transfers of drug money.

According to court documents, hawala is an international underground money remittance system which originated in India, and it is based on trust between the participants as it relies on long-established connections between brokers, who usually are located in different countries, but sometimes are in different cities within one nation.

In this case, drug traffickers used a traditional hawala network of brokers in the United States, Canada and India to secretly transfer millions of dollars of drug proceeds to the United States, where brokers such as Singh delivered the money to couriers acting on behalf of Canadian drug traffickers and Mexican drug cartels.

According to a press release, Singh participated in a hawala conspiracy that moved money generated from drug sales in Canada to the United States, which was then used to pay for multi-kilogram drug purchases in Los Angeles and routed to Canada for distribution.

California Highway Patrol officers discovered $274,980 wrapped in black plastic when Singh was stopped in October 2012.

Drug Enforcement Administration special agents also conducted surveillance and observed Singh’s wife exiting the couple’s apartment complex carrying a bag, which was later found to contain $388,100.

Prior to the traffic stop and the seizure at Singh’s apartment complex, a federal wiretap intercepted telephone calls in Punjabi, indicating that Singh and co-conspirators communicated over multiple prepaid telephones to arrange for the pick-up, transport and delivery of large amounts of money across the Los Angeles area, the press release said.

Soon after the October 2012 traffic stop, Singh met with law enforcement agents and admitted to collecting large sums of bulk cash on a weekly basis and receiving approximately $300 for every $200,000 in shipments, according to court documents.

During the course of a four-year investigation, authorities seized nearly $15.5 million in bulk, 321 kilograms of cocaine, 98 pounds of methamphetamine, 11 kilograms of MDMA and nine kilograms of heroin.

Prosecutors said the conspiracy was responsible for transferring at least $4 million in drug proceeds.

Other individuals convicted in this case include Singh’s uncle, Sucha Singh, who received a 63-month sentence for his role as a hawala broker; Bradley John Martin, who similarly received a 63-month sentence for his role as a money courier; and Harmeet Singh, who received a 42-month sentence for his role as a hawala broker.

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