He also left behind a property empire that was most likely built with drug money. Some of that cash appears to have been laundered through his religious and political network.
That is one of the findings of a cross border investigation by 12 media organizations from nine countries, coordinated by Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP) , OCCRP’s regional partner in Latin America, into church-related money laundering across the Americas.
The phenomenon is widespread, as religious organizations often escape scrutiny due to their respected role within communities and the lack of regulation governing their affairs, experts say. In a number of countries, this includes tax exemptions.
“Over the years, religious institutions have been repeatedly used … to launder money,” said Mark Califano, a former assistant U.S. attorney and chief legal officer at Nardello & Co, a global investigative firm. “And their special and protected place in most countries and societies has allowed that to happen.”
Súñiga turned himself in to U.S. Drug Enforcement agents in Guatemala in December 2019 and was extradited to Texas. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control identified him and his organization as “significant foreign narcotics traffickers” and froze his assets in the U.S.
He was reportedly suffering from pancreatic cancer and died before facing trial on drug trafficking charges.
American officials also probed Súñiga’s finances, but did not charge him with money laundering,as they didn’t find strong evidence of illicit transactions occurring within the U.S., said a source with knowledge of the investigation.
“Money laundering charges require more direct proof of financial transactions that touched the United States,” the person said in an email.
In Guatemala, reporters scoured court and land records to uncover evidence indicating that Súñiga probably laundered at least US$1.4 million through a scheme in which a fellow pastor bought properties and then resold them to the municipality Súñiga headed.
A municipal accord passed shortly after Súñiga came into office allowed him to grant at least three pieces of public land to people linked to convicted drug trafficker Juan Alberto Ortiz López, also known as Chamale. Ortiz was reported to have ties to Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel.
A 2013 document from the Guatemalan authorities identified a mayor in San Marcos, the department that includes Ayutla, as someone “believed to be involved in drug trafficking.” A 2015 court document revealed that authorities wanted to strip the immunity Súñiga held as mayor, because he was suspected of money laundering. The court recommended he be prosecuted for money laundering, but charges were never brought against him. Súñiga remained in office another five years, 12 in total, until he surrendered to U.S. authorities in December 2019.
While other churches have also been accused of laundering the proceeds of drug sales, the cross-border investigation found that cash came from other sources too.
Mexico earlier this year froze about $19.4 million held in accounts connected to the church, according to local media reports.
A pastor from the Dominican Republic, Jorge Mercedes Cedeño, pleaded guilty before a Colombian court to belonging to a criminal organization called the Urabeños (now known as the Gulf Clan), which is one of Colombia’s most powerful drug cartels. According to his 2015 conviction, he managed a “good part” of their finances and bought property for them. The ruling also established that he wired money from the organization to his home country disguised as donations from parishioners. Cedeño had been caught in Colombia a year earlier carrying a large amount of cash.
Reporters discovered that an Argentinian prosecutor is investigating the country’s branch of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a global behemoth that began in Brazil. Authorities detected suspiciously large cash deposits into church accounts between 2010 and 2014.
The case in Argentina illustrates how churches can be vulnerable to being co-opted for money laundering, according to Emilio Guerberoff, a prosecutor with the country’s Economic Crimes Jurisdiction.
“By receiving anonymous donations through tithes – whose origin may not be explained – churches become the perfect money laundering machine,” said Guerberoff, who is taking part in a probe.
“There may be a clash of interests between freedom of religious worship and the prevention of money laundering.”
* Stories thanks to incredible efforts of Columbia Journalism Investigations (U.S.), Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism, OCCRP, Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (México), Nómada (Guatemala), Canal 13 Noticias (Costa Rica), IDL-Reporteros (Perú), Infobae (Argentina), Agência Pública (Brazil), Folha de São Paulo (Brazil), La Diaria (Uruguay), El Tiempo (Colombia)