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The Murder and The Money Trail

A Canadian bank gets embroiled in allegations of fraud and corruption after one of its bank managers is brutally murdered. The fifth estate's Bob McKeown investigates.
BROADCAST DATE : Oct 18, 2013

The Murder and the Money Trail

EPISODE SYNOPSIS: When a body was found in a roadside ditch outside Mexico City, it seemed like just another murder – one of tens of thousands of violent killings in that country each year. But the victim was in fact the hard-working mother of two and the branch manager for Canadian-owned Scotiabank. The death of Maru Oropesa revealed the risks that Canadian banks and their employees face in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. From one murder in Mexico, the fifth estate’s Bob McKeown follows the money trail to secret accounts in Switzerland, and into the underworld of Mexican money laundering.

The official fraud investigations would eventually uncover more than 14 million dollars missing from Scotiabank accounts in Mexico and more than 16 employees involved at almost all levels of the bank - including a cashier, a manager, and even a vice-president. But the murder of the branch manager remained unsolved. Knowingly or not, did the bank’s actions help or hinder her murder investigation? McKeown speaks to her family and the Mexican former chief prosecutor in the case to untangle the web of criminal activity that led to her death.

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By: Andrew Culbert

Her name was Maru Oropesa. She was the 41-year-old branch manager of a Scotiabank located in an upscale Mexico City neighbourhood. The divorced mother of two, she lived with her young sons and her mother.

The nightmare began with a phone call for her oldest son Lauro Gonzalez Oropesa, just 13 at the time. The phone rang at 2:00 am on September 28, 2001. A man’s voice on the other end demanded 300,000 pesos (almost 30,000 dollars) - or else his mother would die. The caller said he would call back. Lauro, his brother, and their grandmother waited by the phone all night. The second call never came.

Questions about a link between her death and her job would soon reach the executive suites of Scotiabank’s head office in Toronto. Investigators focused on one of Oropesa’s large investment accounts, and discovered that she had signed off on the illegal transfer on nearly $5 million to an account in Switzerland - all without her client’s knowledge.

The man behind the plan was Jaime Ross, branch manager at Oropesa’s Scotiabank before her. By the summer of 2001, he had left to become a vice-president at another foreign bank in Mexico City, France’s BNP.

Oropesa’s friends said Ross promised her a $50,000 cut to take part in his scheme - a windfall for a single mom with two young sons. Her sons, Lauro and Andres, say there was never any sign their mother received even a penny of those missing millions.

“If you become rich you can begin to breakfast with salmon and maybe champagne,” Lauro told McKeown. “No, I continue eating scrambled eggs [for] breakfast.”

On the morning of September 29th , a man walking home from working the night shift caught a glimpse of something that look human, hidden in the undergrowth in the ditch. In fact, it was Oropesa’s body.

At first, the Mexican police believed Oropesa’s murder was a kidnapping gone wrong.

According to the police report obtained by the fifth estate, Oropesa had been cut with a knife numerous times - on her chest, neck, and face - before being stabbed in the torso and bleeding to death internally.

the fifth estate asked world-renowned homicide investigator Paul Ciolino to review the police report and share his professional opinion. The nature of her injuries persuaded Ciolino that this was not a random killing.

“These are torture injuries, or signs of torture. You know there are no signs of sexual assault on her,” Ciolino said. “Clearly she’s being questioned and they’re trying to get answers, and she’s clearly under some duress.”

Ciolino said he’s concluded there was in fact no kidnapping. Instead, the alleged kidnap call was intended to distract the police, not to extract ransom.

“This woman was killed to silence her, not to get money from a family with no money,” he said. “And if you are going to kidnap her you call the bank, right? You’re gonna call her bosses at the bank and hit them with a big number.”

As investigators focused on the nearly $5 million that was stolen from one of Oropesa’s investment accounts, they were eventually able to trace the money to the purchase of three aircraft in the United States. At the time, US Immigration and Customs agent Gabriel Gonzalez was assigned to the American embassy in Mexico City. He was part of a task force trying to clamp down on Mexican money laundering, and he agreed to assist the Scotiabank investigation.

“I keep going back to the money trail, because when money is moved from one bank to another bank and bank accounts are opened, there’s a trail there,” Gonzalez told McKeown.

Investigators followed the money trail through a maze of accounts and shell companies.

Swiss authorities watched as the money ended up in shell corporations in Dublin, Ireland. From there, the funds were used to purchase three aircraft in the US: a Learjet, an Augusta helicopter, and a Cessna Caravan.

One name kept showing up in the paperwork, and then appeared as owner of the planes: Jaime Ross.

As the investigation expanded, agents uncovered about $14 million missing from Scotiabank accounts in Mexico, and a total of 16 employees involved at almost all levels of the bank - including a cashier, a manager, and an executive director.

A fugitive for months, Ross was finally arrested in the resort city of Cancun. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years for fraud and money laundering, but not for the murder of Oropesa.

So as far as Scotiabank was concerned, it seemed the case the closed…but was it?

There were two mysteries yet to solve: how high up did the money trail go? And why had Maru Oropesa been killed?

The 16 other Scotiabank employees found to be involved in the fraud were never prosecuted. They were fired.

Scotiabank says they had filed a criminal complaint that resulted in the fraud charges against Jaime Ross, but insisted it was up to prosecutors to pursue others who were responsible, and not up to the bank.

But former Mexican prosecutor Jose Luis Marmolejo told McKeown that in cases of financial crime against a bank, he could not press charges against bank employees unless the bank itself filed a criminal complaint specifically naming them.

Marmolejo insists Scotiabank’s decision to fire those 16 employees only encouraged even more fraud.

“If you just put them on the street, that’s not the solution to the problem you know? You’re only creating a potential criminal because you’re putting in the main street a person that has knowledge of how to move money inside an institution like Scotiabank,” Marmolejo said.

In fact, investigators soon discovered the problems at Scotiabank in Mexico went far beyond the 16 employees and $14 million. Mexican banking regulators found other frauds involving bank staff.

Marmolejo told McKeown Scotiabank staff throughout Mexico forged ATM cards to systematically skim millions from the retirement accounts of Mexican pensioners.

Regulators also found millions of dollars in bogus Scotiabank loans given to bank employees, their families and friends.

Diane Flanagan, vice president for communication at Scotiabank, says the bank works diligently to prevent fraud.

“Fraud is an ever-present risk to all industry around the world. It’s a constantly evolving threat. In Canada and around the world, we work very hard to stay one step ahead of the next type of fraud,” she said.

But some say allegations of wrongdoing at Scotiabank in Mexico kept piling up for over a decade. There were embarrassing news stories about fraud and money laundering. Top executives were let go amid reports of bribery and embezzlement, and fines were imposed for inadequate controls over the bank’s transfers and deposits.

Just last year, Scotiabank in Mexico was at the centre of a political furor. Opposition politicians accused the bank of facilitating an illegal deposit to an account controlled by Mexico’s new president.

The bank said it was a legal transaction and any confusion was due to a “reporting error”.

But just a couple of weeks later, after a visit by a delegation from Scotiabank’s head office in Toronto, Scotiabank’s Mexican CEO Nicole Reich De Polignac suddenly quit for reasons of “professional development”, according to their the press release at the time. Meanwhile, a decade after Oropesa’s death, her sons still have no answers. Lauro and Andres Gonzalez Oropesa are still left asking: who killed their mother and why?

According to her sons, their family has been forced to pay bribes in the total of $6,000 to a local prosecutor in order to get a copy of the police report.

“Yeah we need to pay to make the things going easier and faster,” Lauro said.

“Wow. Only in Mexico,” Marmolejo said, when he heard that Oropesa’s family says they’ve paid thousands in bribe money. “The pain in the family, it never ends. You know, because you never get a guilty, you never get an answer on what happens, what really happens. And I think that’s not fair.”

So the fifth estate set out to find some answers.

Mexican police did not investigate Jaime Ross’ involvement in Oropesa’s death, and the 145-page homicide report obtained by the fifth estate does not even mention his name. In contrast, virtually everyone the fifth estate interviewed about the case agreed that the relationship between Oropesa and Ross was at the very heart of the fraud and quite possibly, her death.

“She has all the main information that can put in risk this operation, this entire criminal activities that were taken by Ross and his accomplices,” Marmolejo said. He said her death must somehow have been connected to the fraud and Jaime Ross. “So, somehow they ordered to be murdered.”

So if Ross had the motive for murder, did he also have the opportunity?

According to Mexican cell phone records, at around 7:00 pm on the evening of September 27, 2001, a cab dropped off Oropesa for dinner in Central Mexico City. Ross’ cell phone initiated a number of calls from the same downtown location.

The estimated time of Oropesa’s death was about 1:00 am that morning. About an hour later her family got that supposed kidnap call from a public phone booth in the area known as Toluca outside Mexico City.

Where was Ross then?

Cell phone records show that from just before Oropesa’s estimated time of death at 1:00 am, and for several hours after that, Ross’ phone made or received 38 calls. All those calls happened in or close to Toluca.

After seven years of investigating, Scotiabank evidently believed it had recovered as much of the stolen money as it could.

In 2008, the bank closed its investigation. If the killing of Maru Oropesa was still unresolved, that was a job for the local police, not Scotiabank.

“I think the important thing for us was to investigate thoroughly and to provide that information to authorities,” Scotiabank’s Flanagan said.

Remember the 16 employees never prosecuted for their roles in the Scotiabank frauds? Here is where that becomes important.

By not pursuing charges, Marmolejo believes that the bank limited the investigation and limited the possibility of finding who killed Oropesa. McKeown asked Flanagan why the bank chose not to pursue charges against any of them.

“I can assure you that if we felt there was any indication there could’ve been a conviction or further information provided to the authorities that would’ve helped with a conviction, that we absolutely would have turned that information over,” Flanagan said.

But according to private investigator and homicide expert Ciolino, who examined the case for the fifth estate, those 16 bank staff were arguably the most likely cohort of witnesses, accomplices, even suspects, in Oropesa’s murder.

“If it's my employee, I want it resolved. I want justice for this poor woman who worked for me, and clearly...could've really hurt the people over her. I mean, you know, there's so much motivation to kill her by these people that it's ridiculous not to look at them closely,” Ciolino said.

But Flanagan maintains that Scotiabank went above and beyond the call of duty.

“We absolutely turned vast amounts of information over to the authorities. In fact, I think there were regular visits with prosecutors and with the authorities. We went out of our way; we spent millions of dollars, as we should have, on an investigation,” she said.

According to former prosecutor Marmolejo, Scotiabank failed to do all it could do to detect fraud, or more importantly, prevent it - especially in a dangerous environment like Mexico.

“All the measure that they have the obligation to give, not just to avoid money laundering, to avoid any crime related to money. And they put in risk the lives of all their employees,” Marmolejo said.