The Abitibi village of La Corne, 550 kilometers north of Montreal, is in turmoil these days. At the North America Lithium Complex, the machinery crushes, grinds and separates the precious ore extracted from the rock.

Australian company Sayona, which bought the facilities in the summer of 2021, produced its first marketable lithium concentrate last month. She hopes to eventually chemically process it to produce lithium carbonate on site, a much more refined product used in electric car batteries.

The impact would be huge. The Biden administration wants to develop a regional lithium supply chain to break China’s market dominance. Since 2022, Washington has offered financial assistance to manufacturers who use North American ore in their batteries.

The adventure could generate significant spinoffs in Quebec. In July, Tesla CEO Elon Musk encouraged entrepreneurs to start refining the ultralight metal he needs to produce his electric cars. “You can’t lose, it’s a license to print money,” he said.

However, the fate of this strategic Quebec installation could have been very different.

Before being acquired by Sayona, Lithium North America was coveted by several groups. The company’s former Chinese owners, battery manufacturers who already had sources of supply all over the world, had lost interest in Quebec and stopped investing there. So much so that in 2019, the Abitibi mine was placed under the protection of the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act. Financial controller Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton was tasked with overseeing a call for tenders for the takeover of the facilities.

One of the groups that had qualified as compliant bidders during the process was called Lithium 360. It brought together Quebec and American business people, with the support of a European finance company called Bandenia. Its bid, which La Presse was able to consult, was ambitious: it proposed a purchase price of $51.5 million, a commitment to invest an additional $300 million to create a lithium carbonate chemical plant in La Corne and a plan to create 200 jobs with an average salary of $70,000 in the region.

Bandenia gave few details about the source of its cash. And for good reason.

After a six-month investigation, La Presse and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international consortium of investigative journalists, can confirm that certain companies linked to the finance company behind this offer of purchase were used to launder money from organized crime in Europe. For 20 years, its leaders have created more than 450 shell companies around the world. Some have been used by criminals involved in human trafficking, drug importation, fraud and prostitution.

One of Bandenia’s founders, José Miguel Artiles Ceballos, was sentenced last November to four years in prison and a €1.2 million fine in Spain for laundering Ana María Cameno’s dirty money. a trafficker nicknamed the Queen of Coca.

Artiles Ceballos, who is still president of Bandenia Companies Registered in Quebec, has other criminal backgrounds in financial crimes. He is also awaiting a new trial for money laundering following an investigation by Spanish authorities into the financial company. In his report, the examining magistrate in charge of the investigation, José de la Mata, concluded that this financial company “could be considered a criminal organization”.

“We are dealing with an organization that is perfectly structured to allow the laundering of money from different origins,” added the magistrate, who also underlined the financial group’s links with many unknown clients in Iran, a country hit by heavy international sanctions. Following his report, new charges were brought against ten people linked to the company, including Artiles Ceballos, as well as six companies from the Bandenia network.

In response to a series of emailed questions, Mr. Artiles Ceballos denied having ties to organized crime, but said he could not comment in detail on the cases that are before the courts. He said he appealed his conviction in the “Queen of Coca” case.

“It’s a very painful issue for me because of the reputational damage that has been done to my family, to Bandenia and to me and which has led to the legal issues that we have been through,” he said. He adds that his group operates in compliance with accounting rules and anti-money laundering legislation.

As for the attempt to buy a mine in Quebec, “it was a complex operation but could have been very profitable,” he says.

Bandenia has even managed to register with three government agencies tasked with keeping bandits out of the financial industry: Revenu Québec, the Consumer Protection Office, and the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Canada ( FINTRAC). These recordings, which remain valid, were obtained despite the legal setbacks of the firm in Europe. They are now used by Bandenia as a business card abroad, to demonstrate its probity.

The idea of ​​buying the La Corne mine with Bandenia money came from Guy Chartier, a Quebec businessman who divides his time between Montreal and Cuba, where he says he is the promoter of vast hotel projects, villas and condos.

Mr. Chartier says he met with a Bandenia representative in Montreal in the summer of 2020. He then created Lithium 360 to submit an offer to purchase the mine with funding from the European company.

The businessman confirms having been in contact with José Miguel Artiles Ceballos and Fabio Pastore, another European leader of the company. Mr. Chartier even created a joint venture with the leaders of Bandenia around this time. They had negotiated the option to acquire a share of the project if it was successful, he said. “Our attempt to buy the mine was legitimate,” he said.

For his project, Guy Chartier retained the services of lawyer Jacques Bouchard Jr, renowned for his contacts in political circles in Canada and abroad.

Me Bouchard Jr was formerly a partner of the former firm Heenan Blaikie, whose expansion in Africa he piloted from 2009 to 2012 with former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a close associate of his at the time. In his book Breakdown, a former associate of the firm, Norman Bacal, says that where Mr. Chrétien sought to improve the living conditions of Africans, “Jacques saw dollar signs”.

“Jacques had cultivated contacts across Francophone Africa, including several countries where the rule of law was not recognized. Dictators ruled many of them,” Norman Bacal continues. Jacques Bouchard Jr left Heenan Blaikie in 2012 following revelations from the National Post about a contract he had signed with the President of the Central African Republic, for the delivery of Russian military helicopters.

Me Bouchard Jr is now part of Gattuso Bouchard Mazzone. He refused to grant an interview to La Presse, but in a motion filed in Superior Court to obtain payment of his fees, he explains that he and some of his associates in this firm sweat blood and water to help Guy Chartier to acquire the mine, from September 2020 to June 2021.

The lawyer explains that he was impressed by Guy Chartier, whom he had known since 2011. Although the businessman had been “without any income” for several years “in the eyes of the tax authorities”, he led “a lifestyle very high”, with “servants and staff at his villa in Cuba”, an “impressive collection of works of art”, first class trips to Spain, Turkey or Poland, as well as a registered company in the British Virgin Islands, says the lawyer.

“He often told us about his major local and international transactions,” adds Mr. Bouchard in his request.

Gattuso Bouchard Mazzone has confirmed to La Presse that it has taken care of registering Bandenia network companies in the Quebec Business Register. At the time, the company was already in trouble with the law in Europe. As early as 2017, the Spanish police had carried out a search of his offices. Two years later, the investigating judge published his report qualifying the company as a criminal organization.

Guy Chartier and his lawyers were looking for influential personalities to boost their project.

They approached investor Adrien Pouliot, former leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec, who agreed to act as a director of Lithium 360 and provide the required deposit of $2.5 million to the monitor with the offer of purchase. American businessman Nathaniel Klein, who had run North American Lithium on behalf of the former Chinese owner, has agreed to run operations at the mine if the deal goes ahead.

Lawyers from the firm Gattuso Bouchard Mazzone had several discussions with former Quebec Premier Pierre Marc Johnson to convince him to join the project, according to their expense reports filed in court. Mr. Bouchard even wrote a short biography of Mr. Johnson which could have been used in the official documentation of the group.

According to a source who was familiar with the negotiations at the time, but who requested anonymity because a professional commitment prevents him from commenting publicly, Guy Chartier met with Pierre Marc Johnson to convince him to become chairman of the board of the mining company. The presence of a respected former prime minister was seen as a sign of credibility. But Mr. Johnson, after inquiring about the actors involved, declined the invitation. Reached by La Presse, he declined to comment on the case.

On January 2, 2021, Lithium 360 received confirmation that it had qualified as a compliant bidder. All he had to do was convince everyone that his project was the best.

The group attempted to sound out Quebec’s economy minister, Pierre Fitzgibbon, as well as his fellow natural resources minister, Jonatan Julien, and Jonathan Gignac, assistant deputy minister responsible for strategic industries, again according to the expense reports of his attorneys filed in court.

Two National lobbyists, Pierre Langlois and Mirabel Paquette, were hired for the campaign. In his entry in the Registry of Lobbyists, Pierre Langlois mentioned the possibility of intervening with several departments. Mr. Langlois, who was adviser to Pauline Marois from 2001 to 2003 and then chief of staff to PQ minister Élaine Zakaïb from 2012 to 2014, wanted to push for a “government orientation” favoring the purchase of the mine.

Guy Chartier, Adrien Pouliot and Nathaniel Klein were able to plead their case directly to Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon via video call on February 4, 2021. A written submission was also sent to him.

“There was no follow-up to the meeting,” confirms Mathieu St-Amand, director of communications in Mr. Fitzgibbon’s office. He points out that checks are always made in these files “to ensure the nature of the investors”.

However, the minister had been warned by Investissement Québec. A team of experts within the government’s financial arm had begun to sniff out the presence of undesirable actors behind Lithium 360.

On January 15, 2021, Lithium 360 filed its offer to purchase with the monitor. The file included letters of credit confirmation for C$380 million issued by Bandenia and one of its affiliates. A letter signed by Fabio Pastore, leader of Bandenia, assured that the funds were “clean” and “of non-criminal origin”. A presentation document entitled “Towards an electric Quebec” explained the importance of the project for the battery industry.

Since North American Lithium had placed itself under the protection of the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act, it was up to the company’s secured creditors to choose with the monitor among all the stimulus offers submitted. The decision was therefore up to the former Chinese owner and Investissement Québec, to whom the company owed large sums.

However, in this case, Investissement Québec had concerns other than its claim.

“Anything that is critical minerals is [a] key sector for Quebec. So we want to make sure that the people who invest have the intentions and the direction to support this ecosystem,” said Bicha Ngo, first executive vice-president of the state-owned company, in an interview.

Partners’ pedigrees are x-rayed, sometimes with the help of specialized databases or Investissement Québec offices abroad. The Crown corporation can even require investors to travel to Quebec in person.

“To really know: are these companies empty shells? Who’s behind? Who are the managers? Who are they doing business with? explains Ms. Ngo, who is however not authorized to speak about the specific case of Bandenia.

“Representatives of the comptroller [Raymond Chabot], Investissement Québec and the government questioned Lithium on the probity and seriousness of Bandenia, in particular because of articles published in January 2019 dealing with an investigation into Bandenia [and other banks like ING] on allegations of money laundering”, recalls Me Consolato Gattuso, one of Lithium 360’s lawyers.

The lawyers’ bills filed in court show that Lithium 360 and Bandenia tried everything to reassure the state company, multiplying the steps for weeks. They even explored the possibility of routing the funding through another company linked to Bandenia executives, Melt Capital, whose name was not as tainted. It was a failure.

Backed against the wall, the group of investors withdrew its offer at the last minute, on April 6, 2021. Adrien Pouliot jumped ship and joined a competing bidder. He fell out with Guy Chartier. Mr. Pouliot did not wish to grant an interview on this subject.

Nathaniel Klein left the band too. “When [Adrien Pouliot] and I realized who Bandenia was, we pulled out,” he said.

For the National firm, the adventure ended badly. “It was a very short mandate,” summarizes Pierre Langlois.

“We have not been paid for our fees,” adds his colleague Mirabel Paquette. She now regrets having worked with this client. “When we get called and we say that Adrien Pouliot is in the mandate, it’s still a name, a solid group… We sometimes make bad calls,” she said.

Did Bandenia really intend to participate in the acquisition of the lithium mine and to inject the sums necessary for its development? José Miguel Artiles Ceballos assures us that yes.

In his report, the Spanish investigating judge who investigated the organization notes, however, that it used to grant credit to apparently legitimate commercial projects “to cover up money laundering operations. money “. Millions could be moved from one country to another on the basis of official documents which made it possible to “justify the origin of capital of uncertain origin”.

The projects then remained a dead letter.

The failed attempt to purchase the mine did not spell the end of Bandenia’s presence in Quebec. The organization has become even more deeply embedded.

The federal and provincial governments employ a large bureaucracy to verify the probity of money services businesses and private lenders. Their job is to keep out groups that may be linked to organized crime, money laundering and fraud.

Yet these organizations opened their arms to Bandenia, whose troubles in Europe could be discovered by a simple Google search, our investigation shows.

Between June and July 2021, Bandenia registered dozens of name variations of subsidiaries and websites related to its financial empire with the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Canada (FINTRAC), the federal financial intelligence agency. responsible for preventing money laundering.

FINTRAC, which employs 523 people and has an annual budget of $90 million, is responsible for verifying the identity of managers of money-services businesses and weeding out those who have been involved in financial crime. It has, however, granted five money services business numbers to Bandenia-affiliated companies, to conduct foreign exchange transactions, money order issuance or redemption, remittance transfers and virtual currency trading.

The name of José Miguel Artiles Ceballos figured well as the leader of the Canadian subsidiaries. Asked about this, FINTRAC pointed out that it does not endorse companies that register with it and that registrations are frequently revoked following audits.

Revenu Québec, which is tasked by the Quebec government with conducting a background security investigation of any money services business owner, has also granted six business licenses to money services businesses in the Bandenia network. The organization did not respond to an interview request.

The Office de la protection du consommateur (OPC), another Quebec body responsible for verifying the probity of high-interest money lenders, granted eight lender licenses to Bandenia and its affiliates. The organization did not respond to our questions on this subject.

All such licenses remain in effect to this day. The company uses them to boost its credibility. On a Bandenia network website that claims to offer money transfers in 37 different currencies and 80 countries, the financial company boasts of being licensed by FINTRAC, OPC and Revenu Quebec, even citing license numbers .

In addition to Canada, Bandenia has already advertised itself by boasting of being approved by other states such as the Comoros archipelago and the Commonwealth of Dominica in the Caribbean.

The law firm Gattuso Bouchard Mazzone was at the heart of Bandenia’s foray into Quebec. Me Consolato Gattuso claims that at the beginning of his collaboration with the group, “there were no public developments in the Spanish investigation”. He adds that the mining project had assembled a “serious team” with “world-class experts”, but it didn’t even come close to succeeding.

Mr. Gattuso’s firm has offered other services to the European company, he confirms. “Along with the above, and separately, some Bandenia executives have indicated to us that they want to launch financial operations in Canada, in particular with platforms for loans to individuals and businesses,” says Mr. Gattuso.

“Our firm was content to fill out the forms and attach the documents received for these new businesses, including business plans and passports. These requests were studied by the AMF, by Revenu Québec and finally by the Sûreté du Québec, which was responsible for the security checks. Upon completion of these investigations and verifications, Money Services Business (MSB) licenses were issued,” he said.

“Our firm has always acted in good faith, based on the information available at the time,” concludes the lawyer.

In early 2023, Bandenia updated its registrations in the Quebec Business Register. The address it provides to the authorities as part of its Montreal activities corresponds to an empty office on the edge of Metropolitan Boulevard, in Anjou.

When La Presse passed by, a neighbor said he did not remember seeing it occupied.

Reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international consortium of investigative journalists, have documented more than 450 shell companies created by Bandenia leaders around the world. They listed links to several criminals.

In 2014, the chance discovery of 48,750 euros in a basket in the basement of a restaurant in Madrid put the Spanish police on the trail of Ana María Cameno, nicknamed the Queen of Coca. From an Opus Dei family, a former student of a convent, her lavish lifestyle began to make headlines after she was intercepted with 10,000 euros and several car and property keys in her bag by hand. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison last year for selling more than 100 kg of cocaine, while José Miguel Artiles Ceballos, who helped her transfer millions to Panama to pay her suppliers through the company Bandenia, got four years.

In 2015, Dutch police arrested Ramon Castan-Serres Sala at Schiphol airport in connection with the transfer of millions of euros to Latin America. According to the evidence filed in court, he used paid mules to smuggle the currency by plane. Some of the money came from accounts at Bandenia, which served as his bank. Ramon Castan-Serres Sala was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for money laundering. The suspect was connected to at least one Dutch drug trafficker, but the source of his funds was not proven in court.

A British trio sentenced to prison in 2020 for a £29million tax evasion used a shell company in the Seychelles Islands to pretend they were working on a healthcare project in the Middle East and illegally claim tax credits. The Pandora Papers, a leak of confidential documents linked to tax havens, reveals that when registering their shell company, the trio admitted to local authorities that it would be used to hold a bank account with Bandenia in Madrid.

Six companies and ten people linked to the Bandenia network are awaiting trial in Spain. In his report, the investigating judge in charge of the investigation claims that the finance company offered financial services to several criminals, including a man involved in what Spanish justice calls “forced prostitution” and human rights violations. workers and another man involved in a large-scale scam.

Several family members of Miodrag Stosic, convicted in Serbia of leading a gang involved in prostitution and human trafficking, are listed as directors of British companies alongside José Miguel Artiles Ceballos and Fabio Pastore, the leaders of Bandenia. Miodrag Stosic himself is listed as a director of a company registered at the same address as Bandenia’s offices in London.