Through the “bank” of Spanish dealers with a fake Caribbean license, drug dealers, scammers, clients from sub-sanctioned Iran made payments

Bandenia Loan Scheme

In 2017, Spanish authorities exposed more than twenty companies that were laundering money for criminals by posing as a bank in Madrid. Now, those linked to the scheme have opened hundreds of similar companies in the UK and other jurisdictions – one even posing as a thriving British bank.

Below is a summary and overview of the main findings. OCCRP investigations National Magazine Comores, IRPIMedia, infoLibre and Follow the Money.

For three years, the British BBP Bandenia PLC transferred between different companies and banks 12 million euros obtained illegally

In 2017, the British firm BBP Bandenia PLC was at the center of the scheme. A network of companies linked to it transferred money through Spanish banks to drug dealers and fraudsters around the world, according to an indictment in a case now pending in Spain.

According to the investigating judge, between June 2012 and February 2015 alone, Bandenia transferred at least 12 million euros between various companies and banks, which customers received illegally. The judge noted that BBP Bandenia serviced multimillion-dollar customer accounts from Iran, although the country has been subject to financial sanctions since 2010.

And in November 2022, in the UK, before the parliamentary working group, Imran Qureshi, CEO of Bandenia Challenger Bank. He said that his enterprise uses blockchain technology and simplified verification methods. Member of parliament Martin Docherty-Hugheswho introduced Qureshi, said Bandenia Challenger Bank aims to “revolutionize trade finance and mortgage lending in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.”

BBP Bandenia PLC conducted real activities, but used data from other companies in the reports

Unlike many other companies identified by the Spanish authorities, BBP Bandenia appeared to be running a real business and serving customers, not just a front.

Journalists studied the company’s reports for 2012, 2016 and 2019 and found large fragments of text there, apparently taken from the annual reports of other companies, including the British subsidiary of the Japanese corporation Hitachi and Metro Bank. A uniqueness check showed that almost half of the text on the first 15 pages of BBP Bandenia’s 2012 reports was taken from Hitachi Capital’s report. The 2019 report says ‘HCUK’ instead of BBP Bandenia several times, which is an acronym for Hitachi Capital UK

In 2012, the UK Financial Conduct Authority added Bandenia Banca Privada (the name BBP Bandenia used from 2010 to 2015) to the list of unauthorized firms. And in 2017, the regulator, contrary to its own decision and many unauthorized transactions described in the annual reports of BBP Bandenia, issued the company a license for consumer lending programs.

The network of companies associated with Bandenia may be much wider than the Spanish authorities thought

Journalists have identified at least 450 registered companies around the world that may be linked to individuals involved in the Spanish scheme. The Spanish authorities named only 27 of these firms. Another 240 have been registered since the 2019 Spanish investigating judge indicted those associated with Bandenia. Approximately 200 more firms have been established before, but they do not seem to have come to the attention of the Spanish authorities.

Some of the identified firms use the Bandenia name in whole or in part, others are clearly related to each other – for example, they use the same address, or they have the same director.

Most of these companies meet the characteristics of phantom firms – enterprises that exist only on paper and can be used to transfer money.

In 2021 and 2022 former CEO of BBP Bandenia Jose Artiles Ceballos and his Italian partner Fabio Pastore were listed as directors of many British and American companies.

Artiles Ceballos told reporters that Bandenia, “like other groups or international corporations, has diversified into different economic and industrial sectors; the company created equity firms and invested in properties that had other shareholders.”

Bandenia seemed like a real bank – customers received account numbers and documents

In 2019, the former CEO of BBP Bandenia, José Artiles Ceballos, was sued for laundering drug proceeds: “Cocaine queen” Ana Kameno Anatolin paid her Colombian suppliers through his fictitious bank.

To make Bandenia seem like a real financial institution, its representatives claimed that the company received a banking license in Mwali, one of the Comoros. In 2015, one of the branches actually received a real banking license on the Caribbean island of Dominica, but in 2018 it was revoked. Customers received account numbers and documents just like in a regular bank, but they were all fake.

“Bandenia provides documentation and business structures that allow money to be transferred to any kind of criminal network,” the Spanish investigator said.

How the fictitious bank managed to transfer money

According to the indictment, companies associated with Bandenia opened accounts with major banks such as Spain’s CaixaBank and Ibercaja, as well as the Spanish division of the Dutch giant ING. The money coming into these accounts belonged to the respective companies, but Bandenia pooled customer funds and wired them around the world.

Funds were sent by wire transfer to foreign banks or companies … located in jurisdictions where banking and corporate secrecy is strictly observed so that the money cannot be traced, ” says the indictment.

The former head of Bandenia, who was banned from running Spanish companies for eight years in 2014, is listed as director of 185 firms in the UK.

In 2019, the former head of BBP Bandenia became a shareholder and first director of a new UK company called Bandenia Challenger Bank — the same one that Qureshi spoke about to the All-Party Parliamentary Blockchain Group.

Despite the word “bank” in its name, Bandenia Challenger Bank does not have a banking license. However, on the website, the company offers letters of credit, bank guarantees and other financial services similar to those BBP Bandenia once offered.

People claiming to work for Bandenia Challenger Bank have fake photos on their LinkedIn profiles.

Questions addressed to Qureshi were answered in an unsigned email from Bandenia Challenger Finance. It states that the company simply bought the name online.

We do not know anything about BBP Bandenia and their band or what they have done in the past,” the letter says.

But on the website of Bandenia Challenger Bank there is a fake banking license issued by the “autonomous island of Mwali (Moheli)”, – exactly the same as the BBP Bandenia.

Fake Mwali banking licenses on the Bandenia Challenger Bank (left) and Bandenia Banca Privada (right) websites

A representative of the Central Bank of the Comoros confirmed that the license was not real, and noted that the Central Bank is aware of fake sites that allegedly represent the financial authorities of the country. He emphasized that only the Central Bank issues banking licenses in the country, and added that Bandenia Challenger Bank is “an offshore organization operating illegally on the basis of a fake license.”

Reaction

Artiles Ceballos denies any wrongdoing. Pastore, whom Ceballos described as a “financial advisor”, could not be contacted.

ING declined to comment on participation in the scheme due to “ongoing litigation.” CaixaBank said that all charges of wrongdoing were dropped from the bank – the court confirmed this. Ibercaja did not respond to a request for comment.