SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. authorities unsealed an indictment Wednesday charging 18 people with involvement in an illegal gambling ring they say spanned from California to Peru and used violence against customers with outstanding debts.
The defendants operated an illegal Internet and telephone sports betting business involving millions of dollars, the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego said in its announcement of the arrests.
FBI agents arrested 14 suspects Wednesday in San Diego and Los Angeles in the case. One person alleged to be a ringleader, Erik Portocarrero, was arrested in Norway.
Authorities said Portocarrero and his brother, Jan Harald Portocarrero, moved the business, called Macho Sports, to Panama and then Lima, Peru, after being convicted of gambling charges in the United States. The brothers could not be immediately reached for comment.
Macho Sports operated the websites machosports.com and betmacho.com, and used bookies to recruit customers in Southern California, federal officials said.
They say they would give customers an account number and password for accessing their gambling accounts and offered a toll-free number to place bets.
The company, prosecutors say, also extended credit to new customers so they could begin betting without having the funds up front, and it would lend money to those wanting to wager larger amounts.
FBI agents executed seizure warrants seeking the forfeiture of at least $5 million in property associated with the company, including a residence in the posh San Diego coastal suburb of La Jolla.
The FBI investigation, which started in 2011, employed wiretaps and undercover agents to infiltrate the organization.
In some of the recorded conversations, the ring leaders are heard discussing the use of threats and violence against those with outstanding debts, according to the complaint. Kidnapping and pistol-slapping were mentioned in the conversations, but the complaint gave no further details and it was not clear if those actions were carried out against any bettors.
"This case highlights the connection between illegal Internet gambling operations and the violence associated with this type of racketeering activity," said Daphne Hearn, the FBI special agent in charge. "Criminal enterprises like Macho Sports and their U.S.-based bookmakers prey on the gambling addictions of their betting customers, wreaking havoc on people's lives and the lives of family members."
Some defendants were expected to be arraigned Wednesday.