The Corruption Connection: The Shark’s Powerful Friends
Eleven weeks into his job at a Mexican foreign-exchange company, Mauro González Galindo was shot dead in a hail of gunfire.
He was driving along Yaxchilán Avenue in downtown Cancún in July 2018 when his Kia Sportage was attacked by what witnesses described as four armed men in a van with license plates from the state of Tabasco.
Police said the car was left pockmarked by at least 32 bullets, according to local media reports. Seven of them reportedly hit González, four in his chest and three in his face.
Two and a half months before his death, González had been appointed as the compliance officer for a company called Brazil Money Exchange Centro Cambiario, which operates a chain of currency-exchange shops in Mexico under the trade name Master Exchange.
Brazil Money Exchange appears to be a legitimate company. But an investigation by OCCRP with partners in Mexico and Romania shows it was owned until recently by the head of the Riviera Maya gang, Florian Tudor, who bought the business in 2014 as he was building the infrastructure for what police have alleged is a vast ATM skimming operation.
Brazil Money Exchange now has kiosks in many of the same tourist haunts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya where the gang was running its operation.
The company offers a glimpse into Tudor’s political and business ties, from the allegedly corrupt notaries who incorporated it to the fraudster businessmen who bought it from him.
Money Exchange is still operating an office in Playa del Carmen, where the Riviera Maya gang ran its most lucrative ATMs.
Tudor has proven adroit at using politics, influence and potentially money and fear to go after those investigating him. Two law enforcement officers who challenged the crime boss said his ties to public officials, prosecutors, and local media have made the Riviera Maya gang virtually untouchable.
“The international fame of this group of pseudo-businessmen is, I believe, the worst we have seen,” said one of the people who has tangled with Tudor, Quintana Roo Secretary of Security Alberto Capella Ibarra.
“In this country there are political groups and certain sectors that treat them as if they were [Mexico’s richest man] Carlos Slim or company,” Capella said. “It’s dramatic.”
After the temporary detention of Tudor and raids on his home by Mexican authorities, the gang lost its contract with a reputable bank and removed its cash machines last year. But the exchange shops are still operating in many of the same tourist areas — in some cases just meters away from where the gang’s rigged ATMs used to operate.
González’s killing, like 98 percent of murders in the state of Quintana Roo, remains unsolved.
A Change of the Guard
Brazil Money Exchange started operations in 2012. It was set up by Juliano Belmonte do Amaral, a Brazilian whose sister, Jucilene, is described by Tudor as his wife.
The Romanian gang leader, nicknamed “The Shark,” bought it two years later — just two months after his gang set up a front company for its cash-machine operating company, Top Life Servicios.
Reporters found no evidence that Brazil Money Exchange has been used to launder money, as several of the gang’s other businesses were, although the company never obtained an anti-money laundering certification and was sanctioned repeatedly for failing to follow anti-money laundering regulations during Tudor’s time.
There is scant information on Brazil Money Exchange’s activities until 2017, when it renewed its license to operate currency exchange services of up to US$10,000 per client per day. It also listed a new trade name, Master Exchange.
By May 2018, most of its shares had been transferred to Fabricio Ledesma Heinrich, an activist for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000 in what novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has described as “the perfect dictatorship.”
Tudor briefly remained as the company’s sole administrator until he officially renounced the title in May 2018. One year later, however, an associate arrested alongside Tudor during a raid told police that Tudor still had a currency exchange business.
González also joined the company as a compliance officer at the same meeting where Tudor resigned. But he would remain in that post for only 11 weeks before he was gunned down behind the wheel of his car.
While Tudor was still sole administrator, in January 2018, the PRI activist’s sister also founded a company called Master Exchange Center, Centro Cambiario. Despite its stated business purpose, it is not licensed to exchange currencies. Its only function seems to be owning the Master Exchange trademark, which appears to be a front for Ledesma and Tudor’s business.
The front company’s two co-founders, Alejandro Carapia Toledo and Gabino Jiménez Vázquez, were allegedly involved in a $20 million corruption scheme in which Jiménez and other business partners allegedly funnelled state funds from local officials into a presidential campaign without consent.
Master Exchange Center, Centro Cambiario was co-founded by Alejandro Carapia Toledo, a lawyer, and Gabino Jiménez Vázquez, a businessman. Jiménez not only owned shares in the company, but was its sole administrator.
This wasn’t the pair’s first rodeo. They had previously managed a construction company called Golfmex Development, which was used to collect millions of dollars in payments that reportedly financed the failed presidential candidate campaign of Ernesto Cordero, from the right-wing National Action Party.
In a series of reports published in 2013, journalist Georgina Howard detailed the alleged corruption scheme, in which Golfmex representatives toured hundreds of Mexican municipalities asking for payments in exchange for access to federal funds. Fees ranged from 20,000 to 200,000 pesos, totalling an estimated 240 million pesos ($20 million) in bribes.
Golfmex’s financial director, Jiménez was personally implicated. According to Howard, he attended a meeting in Mexico City in 2011 during which 180 municipal presidents paid 17,400 pesos ($1,450) each in what they thought was a payment to gain access to federal funds.
Those funds never came. Some disappointed municipal presidents claim the money was used to finance Cordero’s failed campaign to become a presidential candidate.
Jiménez registered Master Exchange’s trademark via a financial outsourcing company called Consorcio Empresarial Century. Fabricio Ledesma Heinrich is its CEO, though its other employees seem to have fewer credentials: Its surveillance officer is the driver of a public transport minibus in his late 50s.
With trademark, front company, and proxies in place, business boomed at Master Exchange. The company expanded into a fully fledged chain, which now claims to have 10 offices in tourist destinations in the states of Quintana Roo, Baja California, and Guanajuato. Its headquarters are just one minute’s walk from the gang’s offices.
Master Exchange even started a home delivery service for exchanging cash — though unlike most reputable vendors, who process transactions online, customers are simply told to send them a message on WhatsApp to arrange delivery, potentially leaving no paper trail.
Another related company, Corporativo Comercial Century, is supposedly owned by a 69-year-old man who appears on a list of recipients of subsidies for the poorest people in Quintana Roo.
Money Exchange’s shop at La Isla Shopping Village in Cancún, just seconds away from the gang’s ATMs.
The Governor’s Friends
The gang would not have been able to build up its business empire in Quintana Roo, which is known for breathtaking corruption, without officials turning a blind eye to the origins of their money.
The state’s former governor, Roberto Borge Angulo, was arrested in Panama in 2017 while trying to board a flight to Paris as he fled accusations of abuse of power, embezzlement, and improperly using his office in Mexico.
As the ringleader of the eponymous “Borge’s pirates” scheme, he was charged with selling off state land belonging to the Institute of Real Estate Heritage (IPAE) and systematically stealing people’s property using state agencies and the help of public officials. The “governor who sold Quintana Roo,” as he became known, is also accused of money laundering.
The public notary who incorporated Master Exchange was also implicated in the scandal, having headed a state agency that stole four hotels in Tulum, a tourist destination in Quintana Roo that is home to a Mayan walled city, according to media reports.
Luis Gabriel Palacios Velasco, who in 2013 notarized the creation of the gang’s main front company, Top Life Servicios, has also been tied to property scams. Five years later, he allegedly helped one of Borge’s “pirates,” Quintana Roo’s Magistrate of Justice, steal property in Cancún and auction it off to shell companies without the owners’ knowledge.
In 2015, Palacios also approved the creation of Investcun, which the gang may have used to launder the profits from their ATM skimming operation by buying Cancún property. Within three weeks of its incorporation, Investcun purchased a building in the center of the city once occupied by IPAE, one of the state bodies Borge ransacked while in office.
The Riviera Maya gang’s headquarters in Cancún towers over the surrounding buildings.
The building, on Calle Robalo not far from the Cancún port, became the gang’s base of operations. In 2017, the gang expanded it dramatically, adding a large block at the back with a glass front. A neighbor told OCCRP the place was guarded by armed men and frequented by women who looked like “dolls.”
The gang bought the building from a mysterious real estate firm run by former IPAE director Francisco Evadio Garibay Osario, who has a long history of questionable sales of state-owned land. According to the purchase contract obtained by OCCRP, the ex-official personally negotiated the sale with Tudor’s gangster stepbrother.
The IPAE ex-director who sold the gang its headquarters, Francisco Garibay, is no stranger to controversial sales of state land. Two years after the gang bought the building, in September 2017, his name appeared in a complaint brought by a local transparency non-profit before Mexico’s Attorney General. It alleged that Garibay was one of several businessmen and officials who had bought a total of 165 plots of land that were auctioned off by another former governor of Quintana Roo, Félix González Canto.
According to the complaint, González transferred 352 hectares in the historic Mayan fishing village of Tulum to a real estate firm linked to Garibay. Against strong local opposition, his company started a large-scale luxury tourist development in the region, completing the first phase by 2017. He bought the land at a bargain price of 15 pesos ($1.4) per square meter, even though the average in that area was 6,000 pesos (US$545) — meaning he bought the land for nearly 400 times less than the market rate.
This wasn’t a new trick for Garibay. His irregular real estate deals go back even further. As a public official at the Housing Institute, he was also involved in fraudulently selling public land in the Cancún suburb of Bonfil to construction firms.
Garibay’s son, Iván Eliud Garibay Pulido, co-owned the real estate firm and, like his father, also worked for Quintana Roo’s government. In September 2015, just months after their company sold Tudor’s gang the building, a man who claimed to be Borge’s former bodyguard wrote to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico accusing him and other state officials of having ties to organized crime.
“I worked as a bodyguard for Roberto Borge Angulo, Governor of Quintana Roo,” wrote Luis Manuel Alvarez Adan in one email cited by the Mexican newspaper Reforma. He went on to accuse the state government of allowing criminal gangs to smuggle Cubans into the U.S. in return for 40 percent of the profit from the operation.
He told the U.S. Embassy he had witnessed Iván Eliud collecting fees for organized crime groups. Alvarez wrote he had escorted “Iván Eliud Garibay Osorio [sic], legal director of the State Government in the Northern Zone and friend of the Governor, to collect that said money from different parts of Cancún.”
On the morning of July 31, 2018, Alvarez was found dead in his cell in Cancún Prison, where he had been locked up after being accused of extortion. His death was ruled a suicide by hanging.
Human rights activist Raúl Fernández disagrees. “It was not suicide,” he told newspaper El Universal. “It was murder.”
Tudor and his associates also used their connections to attack law enforcement officers who tried to stop them.
Javier Ocampo García, Quintana Roo’s former agent for the Attorney General’s Office (FGR), said he was fired because Tudor ran a campaign to discredit him in local media after law enforcement raided his house in May 2019.
The gang leader and his associates filed complaints with Ocampo’s agency, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Combating Corruption, the Ministry of Public Function, and the National Commission on Human Rights.
But it was Tudor’s media savvy that may have proved most effective. Ocampo said he was forced out of his job after the Shark launched a “very powerful media campaign” against him in the local press. At first he shrugged it off, but the FGR called him to ask for his resignation.
Ocampo left his post in Quintana Roo in September 2019. He believes the gang has protection from officials in Quintana Roo and other states, and even prosecutors in Cancún.
“There are enough elements and signs [to show they have protection],” he told OCCRP. “They are foreign delinquents who come to set up camp and be protected by authorities.”
Next, Tudor went after Quintana Roo’s new Secretary of Security, Alberto Capella Ibarra.
In February 2020, The Shark and two associates published a letter to the President of Mexico on a double-page spread in a local newspaper accusing the Secretary of Security of persecuting them. Then a series of reports appeared in local media claiming Capella had been removed from his post and the FGR had initiated proceedings against him.
Florian Tudor claimed at a March 2020 press conference in his home that he was robbed and tortured by police.
The following month Tudor called a press conference at his home and angrily accused officers of stealing 67 million pesos ($2.7 million) in cash and valuables during the raid and trying to extort him. He said officers had threatened to rape his wife and held a gun to his six-year-old son’s head, traumatizing them so much they moved to Brazil to escape the memories.
“During my detention I was physically and psychologically tortured,” Tudor declared to the cameras.
Capella said the crime boss’s capacity to co-opt the media and public officials has given him the power to challenge institutional authority.
“We have a lot of information on the links or ties of officials and institutions that have been useful to them,” Capella said. “Even some linked to political power, some political actors, who have become spokesmen for these subjects.”
“We’re talking elements of the state prosecutor’s office, police, Justice Department officials, political actors, and an important network — the owners of local media.”