A court in San José has issued a precedent-setting ruling to seize $600,000 that a Costa Rican lottery ticket vendor held in two separate accounts in local banks as part of a money-laundering probe. It is the first time that the courts have seized funds under new money laundering laws that allow the government to to confiscate funds from individuals suspected of criminal activity who cannot prove the money’s source.
The case against the Costa Rican man, whose last name is Soto, began in 2011 when prosecutors discovered the $600,000 accounts and filed money-laundering charges against him. However, prosecutors were unable to prove he had committed a crime. But based on the country’s Law Against Organized Crime, which entered into force in 2009, a court was able to freeze the funds while investigations continued, and eventually confiscate them.
Chief Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría on Thursday confirmed the ruling.
The law stipulates that a person has 20 days to demonstrate the lawful origin of funds in such cases.
After several court hearings and defense appeals, the ruling against Soto was handed down on Wednesday. The $600,000 will now be turned over to the Costa Rican Drug Institute (ICD), an agency that combats illicit drug trafficking and money laundering.
The U.S. Embassy in San José on Thursday celebrated the court’s ruling, calling it “a milestone for the Costa Rican justice.” In a Facebook post, the embassy said that “laws like these – and investigators and prosecutors well prepared to implement them – are an important weapon to dismantle organized criminal networks that use Costa Rica to launder the proceeds from their illegal activities.”
In addition to the Prosecutor’s Office, other public agencies can file complaints questioning funds from unclear sources, including the ICD, the Finance Ministry and the Comptroller General’s Office.
Famous Tico footballer faces same inquiry
The Finance Ministry is currently conducting a similar investigation of ex-footballer Rolando Fonseca, who is involved in a case related to two trips President Laura Chinchilla made on a private jet allegedly linked to drug traffickers.
The Tax Administration asked Fonseca – who scored the most goals in history for Costa Rica’s National Soccer Team – to submit information on all assets registered in his name and corporations to which he is linked.
Investigators noted that houses, vehicles, a yacht and other properties worth millions of dollars are registered to Fonseca or corporations where he appears as a board member. The source of his wealth and assets are unclear. Fonseca says he is a business consultant, and that he has done nothing wrong.
In the past few days, Fonseca submitted records describing the source of personal assets, as requested by the government, but he did not cooperate with documents related to the corporations.
The Finance Ministry is considering levying possible fines or filing criminal charges against him, officials said.