An investigation into a criminal group, led by Romanians based in Mexico and specialized in ATM skimming and credit card fraud, has continued to uncover fascinating details about how the group operated, including a network of political alliances.
In February, a joint investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Mexico’s Financial Investigation Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera – UIF) led to accounts suspected of belonging to the Romanian group being frozen. According to the UIF, the gang’s substantial earnings from across Mexico involved operations worth $23 million inside Mexico, international transfers worth $24 million and other financial operations worth a colossal $231 million.
Mere days later, federal authorities announced suspected links between Florian Tudor, alias “El Tiburón” (The Shark), the gang’s Romanian leader, and a broad protection ring of Mexican politicians, including former governors of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, national lawmakers and local mayors of towns near Cancún.
As this story continues to evolve, InSight Crime takes a look at the most important takeaways so far:
1. Latin America’s Only ‘Homegrown’ European Criminal Group
Several European criminal syndicates have long had a presence in Latin America, including Italian, Albanian and Serbian mafia groups. But their presence in the region has typically come in the form of intermediaries and brokers who establish criminal partnerships with Latin American gangs to ensure their cocaine supply to Europe.
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Tudor’s group was different. Its base of operations was in Mexico and built alliances with other criminal groups and politicians in order to operate undisturbed. While the Riviera Maya gang has been linked to sex trafficking and extortion, the fact that they stayed out of drug trafficking may have granted them a measure of independence from other criminal operations.
Its alleged leader, Tudor, moved from Romania to Cancún before 2014, followed by friends and family who make up a tight, mainly Romanian, inner-circle, which has proven difficult for intelligence units and law enforcement to infiltrate.
While the group’s center of operations was in Cancún, it had a national presence. Members known as “pullers” were dispatched widely to withdraw money using cloned cards and install more devices into over 100 ATMs in Cabo San Lucas, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and other tourist hotspots. The scheme has proven so lucrative that some of Cancún’s newest buildings reportedly involved investments from Tudor.
While the group had certain hallmarks of their Mexican counterparts, such as paying off political operatives for protection, it remains the only example of a European-led criminal group entirely based in Latin America.
2. Political Protection
The Romanian mafia’s success, in part, has been due to Tudor’s extensive network of contacts spanning across multiple political parties, involving both national and local corrupt officials, which have secured their protection over the years.
Intelligence information published by Milenio states that those linked to the group include the deputy of the Green Party, José de la Peña Ruiz de Chávez, as well as two former Quintana Roo governors, among many others.
Claims have also been made against René Bejarano, a current aspiring federal deputy for the National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional – MORENA). On February 9, Bejarano publicly admitted that he knew members linked to Tudor’s group but that he cut all ties when he realized they were using both his and his party’s name to engage in criminal activities.
Back in May 2020, reports surfaced that officials inside the Attorney General’s Office were involved in protecting the group.
In February 2021, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for a full investigation into the Riviera Maya gang and their operations.
3. Money Laundering
The Mexican government is currently investigating evidence that the gang set up multiple shell companies which invested millions of dollars in real estate, land acquisitions, casinos and luxury goods in Mexico. This included a luxury, multi-story villa acting as their main Cancún headquarters.
A 2020 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) into the gang highlighted that in 2015, Tudor’s stepbrother Adrian Enăchescu also set up a Delaware-based company with offices in New York and San Francisco, supposedly a front in order to send money from US bank accounts to gang members in Mexico and Romania.
Tudor’s hometown of Craiova is a hub for Romanian organized crime groups, aided by rampant local corruption, the evidence of which can be seen in its luxury downtown apartments often bought with money sent over from Mexico and the US, according to OCCRP. The town was allegedly the origin point for earlier ATM-skimming operations that targeted Switzerland, Italy, France and the United States.
4. State Response
Since their modus operandi was exposed in 2015, multiple arrests have been carried out by US, Mexican and Romanian authorities to attempt to dismantle the group, but Tudor’s tight inner circle and political contacts have made this difficult.
On March 31, 2019, Tudor was arrested in Quintana Roo but released hours later due to insufficient evidence. There have also been several property raids, which the alleged leader claims were carried out illegally.
However, efforts have noticeably ramped up over the past few weeks. On January 31, at least 85 Romanians were held at Cancun International Airport after they were unable to confirm the reason for their trip, repatriating four back to Europe who held travel bans.
In February, the Financial Intelligence Unit (La Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera– UIF) froze the bank accounts of at least 79 alleged members and accomplices of the Riviera Maya gang, although how effective this move will be, given the gang’s sophisticated schemes, remains to be seen.