Across the Rio Grande: How Romanians Were Smuggled Into the US to Rob ATMs

In 2004, a Romanian man named Filip Sardaru made an emotional appeal to Canada to accept his family as refugees fleeing persecution in their home country.

“We beg you to offer us protection as soon as possible, because we want to shield our children from the hard life we lived when we were their age, a life that scarred us forever,” Sardaru implored immigration authorities in his 2004 asylum application.

But almost a decade after successfully immigrating to Canada, he was back in the southwestern Romanian city of Craiova, working with an organized crime group that runs what experts say is one of the biggest ATM theft operations in the world.

He would eventually pull his daughter, Alisa, into the criminal life he was leading.

Sardaru, who is from the minority Roma community, described to Canadian immigration authorities a business venture he and some friends launched to try to escape their “deep misery.” They had to pay bribes, he wrote, to obtain a licence to open a bar that catered to Roma people, who were often turned away from other establishments.

Their new business was a hit, Sardaru said, but police kept harassing him, demanding bribes and free drinks. On October 18, 2003, police officers “rampaged” through the bar and fired guns, forcing him to jump out a window and break his collarbone, he wrote in his asylum application.

By the end of the next year, Sardaru was living in Montreal with his wife. His daughter soon joined them.

Records show that Sardaru had also applied for asylum in Britain and Argentina in 1998. His wife applied for asylum in Portugal in 1997 and Ireland in 1999 and 2002.

Roma people face persecution in Romania and elsewhere in Europe, prompting countries like Canada to accept some as refugees.

A picture of Filip Sardaru from his Facebook profile. Credit: Facebook

“Many Romanian officials are in denial about the extent of poverty and especially about the systemic and deep-rooted discrimination against the extremely poor, particularly the Roma, as illustrated by cases of forced evictions and police abuse,” said the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in a 2016 report.

But while discrimination does keep many Roma families mired in poverty, the Sardarus were not among them. In fact, Sardaru bought dozens of houses, apartments, and plots of land in Romania between 2002 and 2013.

Not only that, but Sardaru appears to have been smuggling people into countries where they could perpetrate crimes such as skimming from ATMs. Sardaru’s criminal enterprises were discovered by Romanian prosecutors investigating the Riviera Maya gang, one of the world’s largest skimming organizations. Police believe Sardaru worked to smuggle gang members into the U.S., where they could exploit stolen ATM card data.

While most members of the gang hail from Romania, its headquarters is now in Mexico’s Riviera Maya region, a tourist hotspot. Romanian prosecutors say the criminal organization was put together around 2012 by Florian Tudor, another Craiova native.

By that time, Sardaru had already spent years smuggling people across borders, a skill that Tudor quickly put to use. Sardaru’s own international smuggling operation overlapped with, and was a precursor to, Tudor’s Riviera Maya gang, as journalists learned by going through hundreds of Romanian and U.S. judicial records.

The criminal organization would eventually steal an estimated US$1.2 billion, mostly from tourists in Mexico who used ATMs that had been rigged to copy their account information.

When it was stealing from American victims, the gang had to take out cash from ATMs in the U.S., because banks from that country often freeze accounts when a card is used overseas with no notification. The gang needed people it could trust to make those withdrawals, so it turned to fellow Romanians. They needed to be smuggled across the border to avoid visa restrictions. This was Sardaru’s speciality.

Romanian prosecutors documented 295 people-smuggling cases linked to Sardaru in 2012 and 2013 alone. They initially built a case against him for setting up an organized crime group in order to smuggle people. But they were unable to bring those charges against him due to a controversial 2014 change in Romanian law, which forbids them from prosecuting human smuggling cases beyond the borders of their own country.

Instead, Sardaru was sentenced in 2015 to eight months in prison for helping a felon escape justice by sneaking him into the United States. He was not charged for his role in the Riviera Maya gang.

Indonesian police present cards loaded with stolen bank card information at a press briefing following the arrests of Alisa Sardaru, her partner Sorin Velcu (standing to her left), and two accomplices in March 2019. Credit: Ariyanto

Cash Machine Bandits

After Tudor set up the gang around 2012, its members fanned out across the world, skimming account information from ATMs and withdrawing relatively small amounts at a time.

Some of the money was sent to people in Romania, including Sardaru, according to official documents. Some was laundered into properties in Craiova and Mexico’s Quintana Roo state.

The gang used people, called pullers, who travel to different countries and withdraw funds using the card information harvested during skimming operations. Sardaru’s daughter, Alisa, and her partner, Sorin Velcu, were pullers for the Riviera Maya gang. Along with two other Romanians, the couple did time in Indonesia after being caught with fake bank cards imprinted with stolen account information.

Tipped off by Romanian authorities, Indonesian police arrested them in March 2019 in Bali. But, unaware that they were part of a criminal network stealing hundreds of millions of dollars a year from victims across the world, Indonesian authorities jailed the fraudsters for just nine or ten months each.

Alisa’s stint in prison in Bali was just one more stop in a life of crime she was initiated into by her father. At 24, she had already been arrested at least three times in the U.S., once for robbery and twice for crossing into the country illegally.

Her partner, Velcu, had also first entered the U.S. illegally, court records show. In 2005, he was arrested in Texas after crossing from Mexico.

After serving time in Indonesia in 2019, Velcu was arrested back in Romania on charges of membership in an organized crime group, extortion, and carrying an illegal firearm. He told prosecutors that he had left Romania in 2005, at age 20, and settled in Canada as a refugee.

In 2007, Velcu and Alisa were caught trying to cross from Canada into the U.S. illegally, along with their two-year-old child. Alisa was 16 at the time.

She did manage to eventually travel to the U.S., as part of her father’s operation smuggling people from Romania to Mexico, and then across the northern border. Court records show that she was convicted in February 2013 of trying to rob a grocery store the previous summer in Okeechobee County, Florida, at the age of 21.

The bungled attempt made the front page of the Okeechobee News, which called it a “daring store robbery” and ran photos of Alisa and four other Romanian women in yellow prison uniforms.

The would-be bandits included Alisa’s 19-year-old cousin, Amanda Iancu, who drove the getaway vehicle, a Dodge Caravan minivan. Also pictured was a 25-year-old woman named Maria Dumitru, a member of the Riviera Maya gang who would be stopped six years later at the Cancún airport carrying $40,000 in cash.

Maria is married to Gheorghe Dumitru, one of the top members of the gang. In a phone call to her mother-in-law that was recorded by Romanian prosecutors, Alisa said that Dumitru and Tudor coordinated the 2019 ATM theft in Indonesia. Prosecutors also recorded her speaking with Tudor’s wife in Romania.

The Okeechobee News cited surveillance video of the 2012 attempted robbery in Florida, showing the group inside La Fiesta market, a red-and-orange concrete building emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo on one side of the entrance and a Mexican-themed mural on the other. They distracted employees in order to gain access to the office, the newspaper reported.

As part of the ruse, a pregnant Alisa pretended she was about to give birth, although a staffer at the hospital where she was later examined was quoted as saying “she was nowhere near being due.” Three others involved in the attempted robbery escaped arrest, the newspaper reported.

A U.S. border patrol agent looks over the Rio Grande river at the border between United States and Mexico, in Roma, Texas, U.S., May 11, 2017. Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Across the Rio Grande

For her role in the attempted robbery, Alisa was sentenced to one year, nine months, and 13 days probation, beginning December 6, 2012. The Florida Department of Corrections listed her as a fugitive and it is unclear where she went after fleeing from justice. A U.S. court document records her being deported to Romania on March 30, 2015.

The same document shows that Alisa was picked up by U.S. Border Patrol in Roma, Texas, on October 6, 2015. She had crossed the Rio Grande River, which forms part of the border with Mexico and flows 80-meters wide between the towns of Roma and Ciudad Miguel Alemán, in Tamaulipas State. She appears to have used her father’s smuggling network in the attempt.

Although the 2014 change to Romanian law prevented prosecutors from charging Filip Sardaru with people smuggling, the case they built against him sheds light on how his operation worked, as well as his relationship to the crime group that ran the billion-dollar ATM scam.

Sardaru’s gang would fly people into Cancún, where the Riviera Maya gang had its headquarters, and where they had at least one corrupt immigration agent on the take. The Romanians were picked up at the airport and put on buses to border cities like Tijuana, Mexicali, and Ciudad Miguel Alemán.

After a couple days on a bus, they would arrive at hotels where the gang had rented rooms, and then Mexican guides would bring them across the border on foot. If they were caught by U.S. border patrols, they were instructed to erase all messages on their phones before throwing them and the SIM cards away.

One smuggled Romanian told Mexican authorities during his arrest that the gang paid $1,500 to an immigration agent at Cancún International Airport to overlook inadequacies in his documentation, and $900 to three men who would pick him up at the airport, according to local media.

Filip Sardaru and his associates made about 2,000 euros for each person they brought across the border, according to Romanian prosecutors. While not all of them took part in the ATM scam, at least three of the smuggled Romanians were prosecuted in the U.S. for skimming and stealing from cash machines.

They included Giovani Hornea, who was smuggled into the U.S. by Sardaru’s network along with his parents as a 15-year-old in 2012. The immigration official and people who met them at the Cancún airport were arrested in January 2013, according to documents from the Attorney General’s Office of Mexico.

In December 2017, when Hornea was 21, he was convicted of bank fraud. He had been caught the previous year using skimmers and cameras on ATMs in New York and Pennsylvania. Hornea was sentenced to 38 months in prison and ordered to pay $156,267 in restitution.

Hornea’s lawyer pleaded for leniency, noting that he was still a teenager when he committed the crime. The lawyer said Hornea had been lured into the scheme by Nicolae Sarbu, a Romanian “ringleader” who was a decade older than the young man, and who was sentenced to 25 months for the crime.

“Sarbu taught Giovani how to use the devices, and kept the lion’s share of the ill-gotten proceeds for himself,” the lawyer said. “Sarbu would give Giovani only ‘a couple hundred dollars’ as compensation in a scheme that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The lawyer added that Hornea had two young children and was “trying to carve out a life for himself and his own young family.”

Hornea is scheduled to be released in January 2021, according to his profile on Inmate Classified, a website that links prisoners with “penpals.”

Hornea wrote that his time in prison had been “really hard and lonely” and that he was “looking for that sunshine to brighten me up with new friends.”

“Also, I want you to know that pretty soon I’ll be a free man and we never know what our future has planned for us down the road,” he wrote.

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