On Friday, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts announced the filing of criminal fraud charges against the co-owners of a telecommunications consortium, joining state and federal regulators in accusing the pair of operating a $1.1 billion Ponzi and pyramid scheme. One of the accused, James Merrill, was arrested without incident and is currently in custody awaiting an upcoming hearing where a judge will decide whether bail will be granted. However, the remaining co-owner, Carlos Wanzeler, is a fugitive and is believed by authorities to have fled to Brazil, where he holds dual citizenship. While this typically would not present a problem to extraditing Wanzeler to face the charges, the particulars of Brazil’s extradition policies suggest that Wanzeler’s decision to flee may have been a calculated one.
Extradition is the official process utilized when a country seeks the transfer of a suspected or convicted criminal from another country to face charges. This procedure is typically governed by treaties, but is also governed by other conditions including the dual criminality of the offense or the penalties for the alleged crime. The process is not automatic, nor is it typically quick.
The United States and Brazil signed a treaty in 1964 that provides for the extradition of anyone accused of a crime with a maximum sentence of one year or more (the equivalent of a felony). However, Brazil amended its constitution in 1988 to prohibit the extradition of Brazilian citizens to any country, leaving the possibility of extradition available only for those with proven involvement in the narcotics trade.
Nearly 30 years later, Brazil’s official policy remains to prohibit the extradition of its citizens. This may present a problem to U.S. authorities seeking the extradition of Wanzeler, who is believed to hold dual citizenship with both the U.S. and Brazil. Brazil has seen its policy challenged by U.S. authorities in recent high-profile cases, but with no success. For example, in August 2010, a south Florida police officer accused of drug trafficking somehow removed his court-ordered electronic monitoring bracelet and hopped on a flight to his native Brazil. Despite efforts by Florida authorities, Britto remains a fugitive in Brazil and unlikely to face the charges unless on his own free will.
Authorities have not commented on any anticipated problems with Wanzeler, only labeling him a fugitive due to beliefs that he is already in Brazil. While the truth of this assumption should be easily verifiable using flight manifests, Wanzeler’s lawyer has not offered any comment. However, even if Wanzeler is able to at least indefinitely escape U.S. prosecution, the possibility still remains that he could be charged by Brazilian authorities, who have been investigating TelexFree since mid-2013.