Spanish Man Wanted by FBI for North Korean Crypto Scheme Arrested

Julia Smith
Last updated: | 2 min read

A Spanish fugitive wanted by the FBI for his role in providing blockchain services to North Korea has been arrested, according to a statement from the National Police of Spain.

Spanish police alleged Alejandro Cao de Benós, founder of the Korean Friendship Association, has been hiding out in Catalonia and potentially using fake documentation as he had been designated an international flight risk. He was detained upon arrival in Madrid following a journey by train from Barcelona, according to a press release from the Spanish National Police dated December 1st, 2023.

According to the FBI, Cao de Benós organized the “Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference” alongside co-conspirator Christopher Emms for North Korea’s benefit in 2018. The following year, Cao de Benós recruited cryptocurrency expert Virgil Griffith “to illegally provide cryptocurrency and blockchain technology services” to North Korea. 

The U.S. Department of Justice claims both Emms and Cao de Benós taught top North Korean officials how they “could use blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to launder money and evade sanctions” as part of the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference. Moreover, the duo proposed specialized “smart contracts” tailored to North Korea’s “unique interests” and “mapped out cryptocurrency transactions designed to evade and avoid U.S. sanctions,” the Justice Department stated.

Griffith, who previously worked as a developer for Ethereum, was arrested in November 2019 and pleaded guilty to violating the International Economic Powers Act by helping North Korea evade sanctions in April 2022. He was sentenced to serve 63 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. As part of his plea agreement, Griffith must also pay $100,000 

Both Emms and Cao de Bonós were indicted on one count of conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions in violation of the International Economic Powers Act in 2022. While both face a maximum penalty of two decades in prison, Emms, a resident of the United Arab Emirates, is still at large.

In his own sales pitch, Emms allegedly advised North Korean officials that cryptocurrency technology made it ‘possible to transfer money across any country in the world regardless of what sanctions or any penalties that are put on any country,’” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York. “The sanctions imposed against North Korea are critical in protecting the security interests of Americans, and we continue to aggressively enforce them with our law enforcement partners both here and abroad.”