Messer, the notoriously prolific money launderer, was able to move millions of dollars through Brazil’s emerald mining industry, adding yet another scheme to his laundry list of illicit financial dealings.
An investigation by Brazilian prosecutors showed that Messer laundered at least $44 million between 2011 and 2017 through one exporter of precious stones based in Rio de Janeiro, Folha de São Paulo reported in early April.
The money, which came from public funds embezzled by some of Brazil’s most powerful politicians, was deposited by Messer’s associates into the bank accounts of emerald miners or middlemen selling emeralds on behalf of the exporter, O S Ledo, revealed the newspaper, citing confessions made by Messer’s collaborators to police.
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O S Ledo then sold emeralds to buyers abroad, mostly in India and Hong Kong, and made deposits to foreign bank accounts connected to Messer’s money-laundering operations. This allowed the millions of dollars to seem like they were being moved as part of the firm’s everyday business.
However, the police investigation into O S Ledo showed that the emeralds themselves were being illegally extracted in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, an area with a history of illegal mining.
Messer was a crucial actor in money laundering schemes that emerged during Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), an investigation into how the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid millions in bribes to political leaders across Latin America. Most notably, he allegedly masterminded a vast operation that moved $1.6 billion across more than 3,000 bank accounts in 52 countries between 2011 and 2017.
In August 2020, Messer was sentenced to over 18 years in jail by a court in Rio de Janeiro and agreed to return around 1 billion reais ($184 million) in embezzled funds.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the illegal emerald scheme may have laundered around $44 million dollars, this was a paltry sum in comparison to Messer’s total operations. But it stands as yet another testament to the breadth and inventiveness of one of the largest money laundering schemes in Latin America.
Scandals related to the illegal mining of emeralds have more frequently been seen in Colombia, with the country’s “emerald czar” found guilty of drug trafficking and murder in the United States in 2019.
While Brazil faces an epidemic of illegal mining, the extraction and sale of illegal emeralds, rubies and amethysts has not received much attention from security forces.
This lack of scrutiny is likely what attracted Messer to this scheme, as he was able to find willing partners who were already involved in a lucrative criminal economy that involved international transactions while flying under the radar.
Other money-laundering operations masterminded by Messer included manipulating operations to buy and sell US dollars in Paraguay, using the Brazilian banking system to move up to 1 billion reais abroad for politicians of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT), and owning an offshore account in Panama connected to the SwissLeaks revelations.