Operation Car Wash: Messer’s Money Laundering Network Involves a Web of Investment Companies in the US and Across Latin America

Written by Bjorn Kjelstad

September 8, 2020

A federal court in Rio de Janeiro recently approved the cooperation agreement of one of Brazil’s most prominent money launderers — Dario Messer.

While the deal may signal the end of Messer’s criminal case in Brazil, the extent of his money laundering network — which operates globally — suggests that international financial institutions should verify whether any of his known associates or family members hold accounts that could be at high risk for moving illicit funds.

In this investigation, we demonstrate the utility of public records in identifying corporate assets that could be at high risk of facilitating money laundering given their links to known associates of a convicted money launderer.

 

Dario Messer’s money laundering exploits

A federal court in Rio de Janeiro accepted Dario Messer’s cooperation agreement on August 12. The agreement stipulates that Messer must return $185 million in assets and serve 18 years and nine months in prison.

The agreement comes after Messer’s July 2019 arrest on money laundering and related charges in Brazil, whereby Brazilian authorities allege that between 2011 and 2017, the Brazilian financier and currency exchange operator (doleiro) managed a scheme to launder $1.6 billion through 3,000 offshore companies in 52 countries.

Messer, who has operated in the currency exchange business for decades and has been implicated in other high-level embezzlement and money laundering schemes in the past, leveraged a complex black market currency exchange system to transfer value from reals to dollars and from Brazilian bank accounts to foreign accounts via shell companies.

The investigation into Messer’s money laundering schemes stemmed from Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato), a criminal investigation that began in 2014 looking into bribes paid to executives of the Brazilian state oil firm Petrobras by various construction companies. The investigation has since expanded considerably, implicating the highest ranks of the political elite in several Latin American countries.

Messer allegedly charged commissions to move the proceeds from corruption and bribery related to schemes outlined in Operation Car Wash at the service of various public officials.

He has also been charged with money laundering and criminal association in Paraguay, where, as part of the schemes, he potentially laundered $150 million via real estate, cattle, vehicles, and bank accounts, among other assets, according to ABC Color.

In Paraguay, Messer reportedly used four companies to manage the majority of his assets:

  • Chai, S.A.
  • Matrix Realty, S.A.
  • Pegasus Inversiones, S.A.
  • Gramonte, S.A.

Fig.1: A Sayari Graph snapshot of part of Dario Messer’s corporate network in Paraguay.

Messer is also allegedly linked to the highest echelons of the Paraguayan government. In November 2019, Brazilian prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Horácio Cartes Jara, the former president of Paraguay, for allegedly aiding Messer while he was a fugitive from justice prior to his arrest in July 2019.

 

Real estate in New York

Apart from his extensive property holdings in Paraguay, Messer also has a history of owning real estate in New York. Between 1991 and 2005, he was the owner of a luxury condominium at The Oxford on 72nd in New York City. He sold the unit in July 2005 for $990,000 to an individual by the name of Marcelo Messer, a possible family member.

In December 2008, Dario Messer purchased a second unit in the same condominium complex for $1.5 million. He sold the unit in January 2017 for an undisclosed price to a New York-registered company called Hernandarias Corp.

Hernandarias Corp. has a very similar name to a Bahamas-based shell company — Hernandarias Ltd. — that Messer used to carry out his money laundering operations, according to Brazilian authorities. While the New York Department of State typically doesn’t disclose directors and/or shareholders for legal entities online, Messer appears to have signed his name both as the grantor and grantee in a smoke detector affidavit of compliance document that was filed along with the deed. This leaves no doubt as to the existence of Messer’s relationship to Hernandarias Corp.

Fig. 2: A snapshot of an affidavit of compliance with smoke detector requirements filed along with the deed of sale of a condo between Dario Messer and Hernandarias Corp. Source: NYC Department of Finance — ACRIS.

Of the $185 million in assets that Messer has agreed to return as part of his cooperation agreement with Brazilian prosecutors, at least $2 million is from a New York apartment “registered in the name of an offshore,” according to CNN Brasil. The apartment likely refers to the aforementioned unit in the Oxford on 72nd condominium complex owned by Hernandarias Corp.

 

Messer’s associates in Brazil and Paraguay

Brazilian authorities have identified numerous individuals who they allege helped facilitate Messer’s laundering activities over the years. Among them is a Brazilian financier named Roland Pascal Gerbauld.

Gerbauld — who has been charged with money laundering and criminal organization by Brazilian prosecutors for his role in allegedly supporting Messer’s money laundering operations — maintains a corporate network spanning Brazil, Paraguay, the Bahamas, and South Florida.

Throughout the course of the investigation, Brazilian authorities identified a Bahamas-based shell company controlled by Gerbauld — Southplace Investment Ltd — that he allegedly used to move funds for Messer.

Buried in Messer’s cellphone, which was seized after his arrest in July 2019, officials from Brazil’s Federal Police uncovered an invoice from Southplace Investment dated Dec. 21, 2018 for $148,000 and addressed to Hernandarias Ltd., the Bahamian shell company controlled by Messer. The description in the invoice was for “investments advisory services November/December 2018.”

Gerbauld also allegedly helped Messer’s girlfriend, Myra de Oliveira Athayde, create a South Florida-based consulting firm called Goodhope Consulting LLC, as well as a bank account to “receive and move financial resources from Dario Messer,” according to Brazilian prosecutors.

 

Connections to Messer via Paraguay

Gerbauld’s connections to Messer extend to Paraguay as well. He is the co-shareholder and legal representative of Olivo S.A., a Paraguayan wholesale company based in the city of Hernandarias. Hernandarias sits just north of Ciudad del Este in the famed Tri-Border Area, a region inundated with drug and arms trafficking, contraband smuggling, and money laundering.

Olivo is a co-shareholder of Finca Casa de Bolsa S.A., a financial consultancy firm, according to corporate records from Paraguay’s Undersecretary of State for Taxation (Subsecretaría de Estado de Tributación, SET). The other co-shareholder is Pegasus Inversiones S.A., a business consultancy company owned by Dan Wolf Messer, the son of Dario Messer, and Juan Pablo Jiménez Viveros, the cousin of Horácio Cartes, the aforementioned former president of Paraguay.

Brazilian and Paraguayan prosecutors have charged both Juan Jiménez and Dan Messer with crimes related to their role in supporting Dario Messer’s money laundering schemes.

 

Gerbauld’s corporate assets in Brazil and beyond

Gerbauld is linked to three companies based in Rio de Janeiro, two of them are wealth management firms, while the third is a real estate business, according to corporate records from Brazil’s Ministry of the Economy (Ministério da Fazenda).

He serves as a co-shareholder and co-manager of the two wealth management companies — Kbo Capital Gestao de Recursos Ltda and Lafite Wealth Management Gestao de Recursos Ltda — along with a Brazilian national by the name of Thiago Souza de Queiroz.

Fig. 3: Sayari Graph snapshot of Roland Gerbauld’s Brazil-based corporate network, with links to Thiago Souza de Queiroz.

Gerbauld is also listed as the manager of Lafite Capital LLC and the secretary of Laser Condominium Association, Inc, both of which are based in Miami. He was also the previous manager of Jefferson Real Estate LLC, before transferring management to Andrea Maria de Andrada Tostes Gerbauld, a likely family member, in August 2019.

Additionally, Roland Gerbauld is connected to a second company in the Bahamas. In April 2006, Gerbauld was listed as the director of RG Holdings Ltd, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It is unclear whether Gerbauld is still the director of the company.

Gerbauld and Souza also appear to own corporate assets together in Paraguay. An individual by the name of Thiago Souza is listed as the co-shareholder, along with Gerbauld, of Olivo, S.A., the wholesale company linked to Dario Messer’s network in Paraguay. Given the previously established connection between Gerbauld and Souza in Brazil, it is likely that Thiago Souza is the same person as Thiago Souza de Queiroz.

Beyond serving as a related party on three companies with Gerbauld in Brazil and Paraguay, Souza is also a co-shareholder of an additional Rio de Janeiro-based financial consultancy firm called Laq Participacoes Ltda. The manager of Laq Participacoes is Luiz Claudio de Queiroz, who also served as the director of Banco BRJ, a Rio-based private bank that was previously sued by a U.S. financial institution for breach of contract and fraud. The bank entered extrajudicial liquidation in 2015 and was declared bankrupt in 2017.

 Finally, Souza is listed as the manager of two companies based in Miami — BNM Capital LLC and BNM Advisors LLC.

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