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Laredo Businessman Gets 20 Years for Aiding Cartels

A perfume seller who federal prosecutors said tried to "remove the stench of Mexican drug cartel money" was sentenced today to nearly two decades in prison for a money-laundering scheme.

Perfume displayed in the window of one of Mr. Datta's stores in downtown Laredo, Saturday, November 5, 2011.

A federal judge this afternoon sentenced a Texas perfume vendor to nearly 20 years in prison for his involvement in a money-laundering scheme that prosecutors said aided the Sinaloa cartel.

Vikram Datta, 51, an Indian immigrant who did business in New York, New Jersey and, later, Laredo was convicted in September of two counts of money-laundering conspiracy and one count of conspiracy to violate the travel act. Datta was sentenced to 235 months in prison after prosecutors convinced a Manhattan jury he was heavily involved in the Black Market Peso Exchange.

“Vikram Datta used his perfume business to remove the stench from Mexican drug cartel money, and now he will pay a steep price for his crimes,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “Today’s sentence should make anyone think twice about getting into business with narcotics traffickers.”

The peso exchange is used when illegal drugs are sold in the United States, and the proceeds, in American dollars, are smuggled back into Mexico or Colombia, where they are exchanged for pesos at a discounted rate.

Peso-exchange businesses then use the dollars to buy products in the United States — in Datta’s case, millions of dollars worth of perfume — and have them shipped to purchasers in Mexico or Colombia, where they are sold, earning additional revenue for the criminals involved.

Datta, who also had stores in California and Arizona, was making about $30 million a year in annual sales, which his attorneys contend came from legitimate business transactions.

Prosecutors charged Datta with the crimes after a series of meetings he had with a person who he thought was a cartel operative, but was actually an undercover federal agent.

Datta’s attorneys told the Tribune in November that their client is a legitimate businessman who was entrapped by his former clients, Ankur and Ajay Gupta. The Guptas were under investigation for their involvement in the scheme and when they were arrested, Datta’s attorneys said they agreed to cooperate with the government. The Guptas introduced Datta to the federal agent, whose wire-tapped conversations over the course of a year produced the evidence that led to Datta’s conviction.

“He smelled that this guy was an illegal man, that he was repping himself to be a money launderer,” Datta’s attorney, Alan Ross, said in November. “Normal instincts would be to run, but greed got the best of him.”

The greed was outlined in court documents presented during Datta’s two-week trial in September.

The transactions started gradually but quickly increased. Transcripts from the wiretaps indicate that Datta accepted a $40,000 infusion to one of his stores in California and later agreed to wire $100,000 to customers in New York. Over the course of a two-year government sting, he and other co-conspirators deposited more than $25 million in dozens of bank accounts, according to court documents.

Datta even told the undercover agent that his business was “just washing the whole money” and that “a lot of cash is coming to me” and that he was “90 percent sure” that it was “all Sinaloa money.”

The U.S. Department of Justice said today the charges against Datta resulted from an undercover investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration in which 29 individuals have been charged, 21 of whom have been convicted.

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