An investigation is underway following the arrest of five men and women in the parking lot of the Defense Ministry complex in Quito Thursday afternoon. Police say the five are associated with the so-called “Big Money” loan and money laundering operation in Quevedo in Los Rios Province, and were carrying suitcases filled with cash and guns when they were detained.
According to Ministry officials, the ringleader of the Quevedo operation, Miguel Angel Nazareno, also known as “Big Money Don Naza,” was believed to have been inside Defense Ministry headquarters at the time of the arrests but escaped through a side door.
“At this point, we don’t know why Nazareno was at the headquarters or who he was meeting with,” said National Police Commander Cesar Zapata. “We also don’t know what the money or weapons was for but suspect it could be related to an attempt to bribe employees at the Ministry.” According to a police sergeant, the suitcases contained “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.”
During the arrests, police also confiscated two cars the five suspects arrived in. One of the cars had a counterfeit license plate, they said.
The Quevedo “Big Money” operation was closed by police in June 2021, suspected of being a “pyramid scheme” and laundering drug money. Advertising on Facebook and other social media, Nazareno, whose picture appeared in advertisements, offered returns of 20 percent a week on investments and, according to investigators, had thousands of customers in Los Rios and Guayas Provinces.
In August, prosecutors said “Big Money” processed millions of dollars in 2020 and 2021 and donated tens-of-thousands of dollars to local charities. The Superintendence of Companies said that Nazareno’s business registration was for the repair of washing machines, not for financial and banking services.
Following the closure of “Big Money”, hundreds of investors protested outside the Quevedo office claiming the operation was legitimate and that Nazareno, a former military officer, was being unfairly targeted. In July 2021, five people died in a gunfight near the office.
Because the investigation is ongoing, Nazareno has not been arrested.
An employee at the Defense Ministry who asked to remain anonymous said he believed the money was intended for high ranking Ministry officials. “There has been talk of bribes being paid by to protect drug transport operations on the coast,” he said.