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Chasing Brazil’s Premier Money Launderer

BRAZIL / 4 MAR 2021 BY STEVEN DUDLEY* EN

There were few better at money laundering than the Brazilian Dario Messer, who, while scrambling to save himself from Brazilian authorities, did one last tour of his prime refuge, Paraguay, where he sought help from many of his partners in crime, including the Paraguayan president.  

In mid-2019, an intelligence report from Paraguayan authorities made its way to the Brazilian federal police. The report chronicled the movements of Dario Messer, a dual citizen of Brazil and Paraguay who had been on the run from Brazilian authorities for just over a year.  

The list of crimes Brazilian authorities wanted to try Messer for was long. Messer allegedly ran or worked with as many as 59 moneychangers around the region, which were used to launder $101 million for the then-governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Sérgio Cabral, just a part of the millions Cabral stole. The case had grown from the infamous investigation known as “Lava Jato” (Car Wash), which ensnared dozens of political and business elites in Brazil and beyond in several huge and intertwined kickback schemes.  

The fallout from Lava Jato was huge and unprecedented. In Brazil, authorities had arrested and charged dozens of politicians, including the ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was the leading candidate in a bid for another presidential term at the time he was jailed. Amidst the upheaval, Congress impeached President Dilma Rousseff.  

Messer was in the middle of much of this. He was, prosecutors would say later, the “doleiro dos doleiros,” roughly translated – “the money-changer of all money-changers,” coordinating a network that moved money through hundreds of offshore and local accounts, businesses and properties. (Doleiro can also mean "money launderer.") In the process, Messer had cleared at least $31 million for himself, the police said, while assisting in the laundering of some $1.6 billion in illicit proceeds.  

SEE ALSO: Money Launderer Extraordinaire Dario Messer Finally Faces Justice in Brazil

In the intelligence report sent in mid-2019, the Paraguayans said they had tracked Messer through various cities along the Brazilian border. He had changed his appearance, growing a beard and gaining some weight “so he wouldn’t be noticed,” a Brazilian police report would read later; a set of pictures in the Paraguayan report showed him at a birthday party at a house on the Paraguay-Brazil border with his hair dyed light red and a Fu Manchu of the same color, a look that belied his 60 years.  

Messer had eventually left Paraguay, the Paraguayans told Brazilian authorities, which was why the Brazilian police had received the report: They suspected he was now back in Brazil. The police had already missed their chance once in May 2018, when they’d launched a multi-city operation that had netted 53 doleiros. This time, they were determined to succeed.  

The Art of Escape 

Messer knew how to avoid criminal investigations. He’d done it on numerous occasions since at least the 1990s when he became famous for laundering the money of the rich and famous, as well as attending their parties. The two things were related, of course. When authorities got close, Messer avoided getting dragged into the investigation. And when he was somehow connected, he knew how to avoid questions, explain away the transgressions or run – mostly to Paraguay where he got citizenship in the early 2000s.  

By that time, his portfolio included soccer stars and high-level politicians. One of Messer’s most famous associates was Ronaldo Luiz Nazário de Lima, the soccer player who helped Brazil win its fifth World Cup in 2002. It was around then the two opened a nightclub, R9, with a couple of associates who were later arrested for money laundering. Neither Messer nor Ronaldo was charged in the case, which was, the police noted in their investigation, unrelated to the nightclub.   

More brushes with the law followed. In the mid-2000s, Messer was connected to the “mensalão,” a scheme in which the Worker’s Party (Partido do Trabalhadores – PT) provided a “monthly payout” to politicians from kickbacks in order to secure their support for PT legislative measures and approval for government contracts. Numerous PT leaders went to jail. His name came up in other corruption cases as well. But Messer always escaped.  

Still, his brushes with the law made him increasingly cautious. In addition to getting Paraguayan citizenship, he moved his family to New York, and in 2009, he allegedly retired to dedicate himself to “ioga” (“yoga”), police would write in their report. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to stricter regulatory measures on illicit money, he also established protocols for his operators to avoid getting too close to his dirty clientele, connecting the players rather than doing the transactions themselves.  

For nearly two decades, these tactics had worked. Few elites or their operators were prosecuted, as most of the country’s prosecutorial and police resources were dedicated to incarcerating the country’s underclass criminal groups. And when elites were charged, they somehow managed to escape and elude capture for years thereafter.  

But during Lava Jato, the dominos fell faster than ever before, and new prosecutorial tools, the most important of which allowed for lower sentences for those who cooperated with law enforcement, led to game-changing prosecutions.  

Among them was the case against Sérgio Cabral, the Rio de Janeiro governor between 2007 and 2014, who’d allegedly inflated the value of public works contracts (sometimes by a factor of ten), then collected millions of what is euphemistically called a “propina” in return for issuing those contracts to predetermined private business partners.  

Brazilian prosecutors say a core group of political aides collected the money from the companies, one of whom took his own one percent propina, then passed it through a series of doleiros, all of which was coordinated by a couple of brokers in Uruguay. These brokers worked with Messer, prosecutors alleged in a subsequent indictment. In November 2016, Cabral was arrested and charged with embezzlement. Just months later, he was sentenced to 45 years in prison.  

Meanwhile, several of Cabral’s aides collaborated, and in March 2017, Uruguayan authorities arrested Messer’s Uruguay-based brokers, Vinícius Claret and Cláudio Fernando Barboza. In December the two were extradited to Brazil where they started collaborating with authorities to unravel the network that was hiding and laundering Cabral’s money, as well as money from many other schemes. In all, prosecutors say, this network hid over $1.6 billion in illicit proceeds from Lava Jato.   

By then, Brazilian Federal Police – which are more akin to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation – had Messer in their sights. And in May 2018, after secretly securing arrest warrants for numerous moneychangers and financial service operators, they launched a multi-city operation to bring down the doleiro dos doleiros. In all, they arrested 53 suspects. But when they went to get Messer at one of his homes in Rio de Janeiro, he was gone.  

A ‘Brasiguayo’ and a ‘Soul Brother’ 

For Brazilian authorities, Messer’s flight to Paraguay was not surprising. Since 2014, when Lava Jato became public and operators, politicians and businessmen started getting arrested, Messer had moved most of his operations to the neighboring nation. In addition to having citizenship, he had contacts.  

According to Paraguayan authorities cited in Brazilian legal documents, during his first few months as a fugitive, Messer hid on a ranch owned by Roque Fabiano Silveira. A photo later gleaned from Messer’s phone from late May 2018 showed a sunset casting the last rays of daylight on some cows and rolling hills of Salto del Guairá, a desolate Paraguayan municipality along the Brazilian border, where Silveira owns property.  

Silveira is one of numerous “Brasiguayos” who traffics contraband cigarettes from Paraguay to Brazil, according to Brazilian judicial documents. The Brazilians also connect him to two murders – one of a customs’ official and the other of a businessman – which the Brazilians say led to him establishing a permanent residence in Salto del Guairá. Silveira’s nickname, police say, is “zero-one,” an homage to his status as the second-most important contrabandista in the country. 

Paraguay’s top contraband trader is Horacio Cartes, the country’s former president. Long before he’d become president of Paraguay in 2013, Cartes had built up a cigarette empire. His company, Tabacalera del Este, or Tabesa, supplied as much as 80 percent of the contraband cigarettes smoked in Brazil, a business worth billions.  

Both Silveira and Messer had known Cartes for years. Cartes’ father was the principal investor in a Messer-family money exchange on the Paraguay-Brazil border in the 1980s, Brazilian authorities said. And when Cartes had legal trouble in the 1990s, Messer’s father took him in and shielded him, the Brazilian Federal Police claimed. Later, according to Messer’s son, Messer and Cartes bought property together. Messer was, as Cartes would later say, the Paraguayan President’s “soul brother.” 

Conveniently for Messer, Cartes was still president of Paraguay at the time Messer went on the run from Brazilian police. And so Messer hatched a plan to turn himself into Paraguayan authorities. Then he would get house arrest and his high-level contacts could prevent an extradition to Brazil. It was a plan that had worked for other Brazilian fugitives in the past, so Silveira secured Messer a well-connected lawyer, and, in a letter that Silveira passed to Cartes, Messer requested a $500,000 loan from Cartes to help him pay for the lawyer and other legal expenses.  

"Unfortunately, my funds have been blocked," Messer wrote to Cartes, referring to his multiple accounts, "And I need your help to cover the legal expenses.

The plan was in motion, and Silveira moved to get Messer an apartment in Asunción, just a short distance from a police station, where Messer could live during his house arrest.  

Back to Brazil 

As he waited for his plan to come together, Messer went to stay with another associate, Antônio Joaquim Mota (judicial documents also spell his name, “Motta”). 

Like Silveira, the Mota family are Brasiguayos and notorious contrabandistas. According to Brazilian investigators, the clan moves cigarettes and has strong ties to drug trafficking and money laundering.

In its charging document against Messer, the Brazilian Federal Police chronicled numerous connections between the Mota family and various illicit interests, including the network of Luiz Carlos da Rocha, alias Cabeça Branca (White Head). Da Rocha was a longtime associate of Jorge Rafaat Toumani, alias the "King of the Border," until Rafaat was killed in an ambush organized by the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), the powerful Brazilian prison gang. Da Rocha was later arrested himself in July 2017.  

The police also detailed a half-dozen suspicious Mota-family financial transactions with dubious companies under questionable circumstances. And it noted a large seizure on a Mota family property of 1,383 kilograms of compressed marijuana, 2,075 kilograms of uncompressed marijuana, a 7.62 caliber assault weapon, a .38 caliber pistol and two 12-gauge shotguns.   

The Paraguayan authorities did not prosecute anyone in the family for any of these alleged criminal acts, but they did tell the Brazilian police that it was the end of May 2018 when Messer went to stay with the Mota family at one of their houses in Pedro Juan Caballero. Messer quickly settled in: Pictures later showed him sitting and smiling at a dining room table – coffee to one side, a circular, marbled cake propped on a plastic stand to the other.  

Messer’s girlfriend, Myra Athayde, also came to visit frequently. And Mota helped Messer secure a new identity. He would now be Marcelo de Freitas Batalha, born in Mato Grosso do Sul, the state bordering Paraguay.   

Throughout, Messer continued working with Silveira to find himself an escape hatch with the help of his “soul brother,” President Cartes. But the Paraguayan president seemed worried. Cartes’ connections to Messer were well known, so he told Silveira that Messer should wait until he left the presidency before turning himself in. It was important for “the future of everything,” Cartes told Silveira, that this not happen while he was in power.  

In the following weeks, things got more complicated still. Messer continued to push his plan, but he couldn’t get assurances from Cartes and Silveira that he would be shielded from extradition if he turned himself in to Paraguayan authorities.  

Cartes left power in mid-August 2018. Soon after, the plan got put on hold. And in late September, Messer fled back to Brazil.

How to Launder Billions 

In São Paulo, Messer also had a network, which he activated. Although he’d obtained a fake identity in Paraguay, he sometimes assumed the identity of his girlfriend’s stepfather, Arleir Francisco Bellieny, which he used to sign up for a local gym. And in March 2019, perhaps with the help of his longtime associate, Najun Azario Flato Turner, he and his girlfriend moved to an apartment in her name on Rua Pamplona, in a swanky downtown neighborhood known as Jardins, just off the Avenida Paulista.   

For doleiros like Messer, Turner was an icon and a mentor. Prosecutors described him as “one of the largest gold contraband traders in Brazil.” Turner, prosecutors said, was also a doleiro, and, like Messer, was connected to numerous Brazilian political scandals. 

In the early 1990s, for example, the Uruguayan tried to cover for then-embattled President Fernando Collor de Mello – who was facing charges of embezzlement – by saying he’d lent $3.75 million to his campaign; the loan was supposedly exchanged for gold. The ruse – which came to be called “Operation Uruguay” – failed. Congress impeached Collor anyway.  

No charges were filed against Turner, but the term Operation Uruguay became a catchall in Brazil for politicians trying to fabricate an alibi. Later, investigators connected Turner to the mensalão and other political corruption cases. But like Messer, Turner knew how to use his contacts to escape the justice system. In fact, Turner had been on the lam himself for months, living in São Paulo even though there’d been an arrest warrant for him since October 2017.  

Turner and Messer had long worked together as well.

Brazilian police documents say it was Turner who convinced Messer to move his operations to Uruguay sometime around 2003, so the two could operate with undo hindrance. And by the time Messer was laundering corruption proceeds for politicians connected to Lava Jato a decade later, Turner was managing several of Messer’s accounts.  

Indeed, Brazilian investigators say Turner moved and exchanged millions of dollars in cash and properties for Messer between 2011 and 2016, much of it through a travel agency that offered tourist packages and an in-house money exchange, a typical scheme money launderers used to conceal the movement of large amounts of foreign currency.  

It was therefore not surprising that when Messer went on the run in May 2018, he went to Turner, who became, as police said, “his best friend and counselor.”  

SEE ALSO: Brazil Eyes Extradition of Former Paraguay President for Money Laundering

In addition to the travel agency, Turner and Messer used what they called the “dolar-cabo” system to get Messer money. Dolar-cabo, according to the Brazilian judicial documents, is akin to what is sometimes referred to as “mirror trades” or “back-to-back deals.” They work on trust: an associate moves money or capital into the account of one party in one country; the other reciprocates, moving an equal amount of money or capital into the account of the other party in another country. The transaction is done, in other words, without any money crossing a border.  

For doleiros who also launder money, it is but the first layer of a process. The money, if it is obtained illegally, might be moved, but it is still dirty and would need to move through at least one more business or property or bank account on its way back to the proprietor. This is what Messer and his network were doing for Cabral, prosecutors alleged in the indictment against the network.  

The process was relatively simple but difficult to track. The propina from the contractors went to a political operative who passed it to the Messer network, who then deposited it in one account in Brazil that was credited via the movement of money in another “parallel bank” abroad. Messer’s network did not even necessarily affect any of the transactions. Instead, they acted as brokers, working “to marry,” as the prosecutors wrote in their later indictment, the two parties who wanted to do business, then collect a fee for their services. Thus, their nickname: doleiros dos doleiros. 

Throughout, the money moved under accounts with names like Chiefrun Ltd., Main Future Ltd., May’s Zona Libre, and Youngcom Int’l Ltd. And it was paid back to the political operators via several moneychangers along the Rua 25 de Março in São Paulo. The moneychangers did not necessarily even know who was on either end of the chain, but prosecutors said they understood they were part of a money-laundering scheme, which is why most of them were later charged alongside Messer.  

Part of this money traveled through offshore accounts with less scrupulous administrators and little government oversight. Over the course of their investigations, Brazilian investigators identified over 400 offshore accounts where Messer and his network hid money during Lava Jato. 

Messer understood this offshore system very well, since he had also set up an account with his own money with the help of another longtime Brazilian associate, Roland Pascal Gerbauld.

With offices in Miami and Rio de Janeiro, Gerbauld billed himself as a real estate and financial advisor. But according to an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) database, Gerbauld was also linked to dozens of offshore accounts in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Gerbauld, Brazilian authorities contend, had already helped Messer hide more than $17 million in a Bahamas-based bank account under the name of another shell company, Hernanderias Ltd. 

On the run and wanting access to that money, Messer sent his girlfriend, Athayde, to the United States in December 2018, to speak to Gerbauld.

Over the next month, she set up a business, Goodhope Consulting LLC, with the help of Messer’s advisor. Goodhope, Brazilian authorities say, was just a front to move money. And on June 11, 2019 – again with the help of Gerbauld – Athayde opened an account in Valley National Bank in Goodhope’s name with a deposit of $5,800. She opened two other accounts in Bank of America.  

The relationship included illegal transactions, Brazilian authorities say. On at least one occasion, Athayde picked up “sacolas,” or “bags,” from Gerbauld, presumably a reference to cash. In another instance, Messer and Gerbauld discussed moving capital in China; investigators say these are “strong indications” that Gerbauld was assisting Messer to employ dolar-cabo with associates who’d invested or stashed money in Asia.  

For his services, Gerbauld invoiced Messer for $148,000. But the relationship was also personal. Athayde sought Gerbauld’s help to pay a phone bill, and Messer messaged him to make sure he was going to attend a meeting with one of his lawyers. What’s more, authorities insinuated that Gerbauld assisted in helping Messer set up an insurance policy on his $17 million account whose beneficiaries included Athayde and his three children.  

A Race for Messer’s Money 

The insurance policy seemed to be a sign: Messer knew authorities were getting closer. It wasn’t just Athayde’s travels to Miami. Authorities had also tracked her movements to New York, as well as Buenos Aires and Bariloche, Argentina. Her mother and others often accompanied her on these trips, but the police suspected she was not just interested in tourism. In addition to setting up accounts and a front company in Miami, she picked up cash for Messer, some of it coming from the Mota family connections, which passed her the cash in increments of $10,000, so as not to arise suspicions when she crossed borders.  

Meanwhile, back in Paraguay, Messer kept searching for an escape hatch. He contacted his well-connected lawyer in Asunción, Leticia Bobeda, who had as much as $100,000 of his money at the ready to pay bribes. 

Bobeda started making contacts in the new government, and in March 2019, she told him she’d found a way to secure house arrest with the promise that he would not get extradited back to Brazil.  

She had, she texted him, done it before, in the case of another Brazilian contrabandista named Luiz Henrique Boscatto. Boscatto, who fled a conviction stemming from cigarette contraband and other charges in Brazil, had paid $600,000 to the Minister of the Interior, Juan Ernesto Villamayor, to get house arrest and the promise of no extradition.  

“And he’s happy with that,” Bobeda wrote to Messer.        

With Messer’s case, Bobeda said he could have a similar deal: He would spend five months in jail and the rest under house arrest; in return, he would have to pay $2 million to the minister. She’d also spoken with the new head of SENABICO, the government’s asset forfeiture recovery unit, who was a friend of hers and who Bobeda said had committed to recovering Messer’s assets via a civil rather than criminal court, thereby lessening the potential of jail time and loss of assets in Paraguay even further.  

But Messer didn’t trust the Paraguayan politicians. It was, he noted, too much to ask from anyone. “There is a saying in Portuguese,” he wrote in one of their Spanglish text exchanges. “When you get more change than you think you should, the Saint gets suspicious.”  

In other words, the deal was too good to be true. 

Frustrated again, Messer turned back to his original plan, contacting his “soul brother,” Cartes, via his real brother, Julio Messer, who was living in New York. According to Messer’s text messages to Bobeda, Cartes was going to send a Paraguayan Senator to see her and begin to iron out the details of his house arrest. The senator eventually sent an emissary.  

In the meantime, the other deal Messer was negotiating, the one via the minister of the interior, seemed to kick back into gear when the minister sent his own emissary to see Messer’s lawyer. Suddenly, it seemed like a race to see who would get Messer’s millions first. But Brazilian Federal Police were about to pounce. 

‘An errand boy’ 

In early July 2019, Brazilian authorities made a deal with Messer’s ex-wife and his three children who agreed to provide testimony and pay back 370 million reales ($95 million); they captured a Messer associate in Rio de Janeiro shortly thereafter.

And by late July, the police had located the residence of Messer’s girlfriend, Myra Athayde –the apartment on Rua Pamplona in Jardins.  

As they surveilled it, they noticed “a middle-aged, discreet man who rarely left the residence,” they would write in the case file later. It was their first clue they might just have their target in their sights. The police also began to monitor Athayde’s and her mother’s telephones. In one call on July 27, a man identifying himself as “Marcelo” called the mother’s phone and said he was at a store that sold pure-bred dogs. During the call, he told the mother he wanted to retire and complained that his fiancée was traveling all the time. 

The complaint struck a chord: As they knew, Athayde had been traveling a lot, mostly to the United States. With the call, the police began planning an operation to see who that “discreet man” was in the São Paulo apartment, and on July 31, 2019, federal police followed Messer as he came home from the gym. Five of them went to the door. It was open. In the living room, Messer sat in his workout clothes in front of the television, smoking marijuana. He did not resist.  

They confiscated other important materials: his real and fake IDs, jewelry, telephones and multiple telephone chips, an iPad, a Macbook computer, and documents related to the establishment of bank accounts and shell companies throughout the region. They used the materials to track his network, his money laundering activities and his businesses.  

It was, they found, a microcosm of his whole life – evidence of his dealings with moneychangers and contrabandistas; his interactions with politicians of the highest levels, including Cartes – or as Messer liked to call him, the “king” – to get a sweetheart deal; his scramble to move and hide his illicit proceeds in Brazil, Paraguay and the Caribbean via various tried and true money laundering techniques he’d learned over a 30-year career.     

Messer was sent to a Brazilian prison, but his conviction was far from assured and his confinement proved temporary. He married his girlfriend, Myra, in jail. And as the coronavirus spread in Brazil, his legal team won him a transfer to house arrest at his mother-in-law’s residence.  

Several appeals from those convicted in Lava Jato have already been successful. And Messer, who referred to himself as “an errand boy” of the political elites once promised to “put his mouth to the trombone” should he face sentencing.  

 In August 2020, Messer signed a deal with Brazilian authorities, which sentenced him to 18 years in prison in return for his cooperation with authorities on other money laundering and embezzlement cases. The cooperation could have widespread implications – on both sides of the border.

*Vinícius Madureira assisted on the reporting of this story.  

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