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U.S. charges 18 in Colombian money-laundering case

By Chelsea Emery

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Prosecutors have charged 18 people in an international money-laundering conspiracy that they said moved millions of dollars of Colombian drug profits through the United States, Colombia, Guatemala, Hungary and other countries.

An undercover investigation named Operation Circling Vultures has resulted in 17 arrests on charges related to laundering drug profits for traffickers around the world. One more suspect, Marlon Sanchez, 36, is still at large, officials said on Tuesday.

"This is one of our largest drug money laundering investigations in New Jersey, yielding hundreds of millions of dollars in drug proceeds," Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Douglas S. Collier said. "It's significant because it had such a global reach throughout different countries."

An unnamed cooperating witness introduced U.S. agents to Colombian peso brokers. Undercover agents then spent months monitoring money-laundering operations in the United States, Panama and Guatemala, among other locations, a statement by the U.S. attorney's office said.

Among those charged was Jader Gomez, who authorities allege told undercover agents he was trying to move $200 million in U.S. currency into Panama from Guatemala by plane and asked the undercover agents for help.

"You take the head of the snake off, which is Gomez, then the rest of the snake is dead," Collier said.

Each of the 18 was charged with one count of participating in a money-laundering conspiracy. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Mohammad Zargham)