I was one of the most successful female dirty money traders ever… but then I fell in love with a black-market banker

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NOTORIOUS black-market currency trader Nelma Kodama is proud of her wealth.

She doesn’t care that it was earned illegally because she likens the running of her dirty money empire to “conducting an orchestra”.

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She may not look it, but Nelma is one of the most prolific “dollar dealers” everCredit: Instagram/@nelma_kodama

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She is proud that she made her first million before 30… even if it was through illegal meansCredit: Instagram/@nelma_kodama

The 47-year-old became a dollar dealer – someone who trades substantial amounts of currencies underground with minimal trace – in her early Twenties. 

“To be a money dealer is to become the law,” she says. 

“You are following your own set of rules, not doing things by the central bank’s rules.

“It’s a code of honour, of character, of your worth.”

A far cry from the comparatively ordinary dentistry career she had once trained in.

Dollar dealers often provide money laundering services too, which involves disguising the origins of illegally obtained money to make it appear legitimate.

Nelma was initially just answering the phones at a seedy currency exchange office named Santur before being given the opportunity to sit in on negotiations. 

Soon enough, she progressed to owning Santur (it re-branded as Hawaii Currency Exchange and Tourism) when the original owner washed his hands with the dodgy dealings. 

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Nelma, from São Paulo, Brazil, was left in charge of selling currency to businessmen and fellow criminals, as well as Brazilian banks. 

Even though it was illegal, it was morally acceptable for bankers to work alongside dollar dealers in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.

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Nelma acted as a middleman for people who needed money and needed it quickly.

She eventually grew her operation to the point that clients in China and the US could be “looked after” in a matter of hours. 

In the early Nineties, Nelma was raking in millions.

She had so much cash, she had to build bunkers to store it. 

What is black market currency trading?

Black market currency trading refers to the illegal buying and selling of currencies outside the officially regulated financial systems.

This type of trading typically involves transactions that bypass official exchange rates and regulations set by governments and financial institutions.

Transactions occur at exchange rates that are not authorised by the central banking authorities, meaning you get more bang for your buck.

These trades frequently involve large sums of physical cash to avoid detection by financial authorities.

The underground transactions are conducted in secret to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement and regulatory agencies.

In the context of Nelma Kodama, she was involved in black market currency trading as part of her money laundering operations.

She facilitated illegal currency exchanges to move large sums of money internationally, bypassing official channels and regulations.

Notably, she was working along state-run banks used by wealthy people to launder money and avoid high Brazilian taxes.

Nelma became acquainted with her infamous lover Alberto Youssef in February 2000 when they started working alongside each other.

He was known for his expertise in money laundering, something he had done since he was a teen. 

“One day, he said, ‘I’m coming over, I’m going to meet you’,” Nelma recalls, in Nelma Kodama: The Queen of Dirty Money.

To be a money dealer is to become the law. You are following your own set of rules, not doing things by the central bank’s rules

Nelma Kodama

“So he turns up and he’s shorter than me. 

“He had beautiful eyes but was very poorly dressed wearing a worn out T-shirt.

“His shoes were dingy and he had an old 007-style briefcase, really old.”

Despite all of this, Nelma remembers thinking “I’m screwed” the moment she laid eyes on him.

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Nelma fell madly in love with Alberto the minute she met himCredit: Supplied

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The pair’s lives of crime soon began intertwining with each otherCredit: instagram/nelma_kodama

“What did I see in him?” she adds. 

“I saw everything and nothing – or the other way round.”

Alberto played a pivotal role in the money laundering operations linked to Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras.

He also facilitated the distribution of bribes from large construction companies to politicians and executives at Petrobras. 

These bribes were in exchange for securing lucrative contracts and political favours.

He had beautiful eyes but was very poorly dressed wearing a worn out T-shirt… What did I see in him? I saw everything and nothing – or the other way round

Nelma Kodamaon Alberto Youssef

Nelma eventually began helping him source the dollars for these dodgy deals.

“We lived together for nine years,” she says. “They were very good times.

“During that time, he was arrested about three times.”

Alberto was forced to step back from dealing currency due to his arrests – so, he put Nelma in his place to execute underground deals. 

At the same time, cracks began to show in their relationship.

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Nelma and Alberto were at the centre of the investigation in 2014, unbeknown to themCredit: Instagram/@nelma_kodama

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She claims they only had one fight in their whole nine-year relationshipCredit: Instagram/@nelma_kodama

Alberto started coming home late and reportedly wouldn’t divorce his wife to be with Nelma, leading her to seek the attention and fancies of other men. 

While they were busy playing these romantic games, the Brazilian police had begun investigating a corruption scheme in its federal government.

Nelma and Alberto were at the centre of the investigation. 

It was called Operation Car Wash, known as “Operação Lava Jato” in Portuguese, and it exposed the complex web of corruption surrounding Petrobras, construction companies and many politicians.

Nelma had been dealing dollars to all of these people on behalf of Alberto.

Alberto Youssef was Brazil’s black-market central banker, a career criminal who smuggled cash for the rich and powerful

Bloomberg

She was the first person arrested in Operation Car Wash while boarding a flight to Italy from São Paulo in March 2014.

She had over €200,000 in notes stashed in her underwear. 

Nelma was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption, illegal foreign exchange and criminal organisation. 

However, she maintains her innocence as she was “just a dollar dealer” and says she “never spoke to Petrobras”. 

Her sentence was terminated early due to a cooperation agreement and a pardon from then-US President Michel Temer in 2017.

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Nelma is one of the most famous black-market currency traders everCredit: Netflix

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After being released from prison, she lives with an ankle tagCredit: Netflix

Alberto, now 56, was also arrested in 2014 for money laundering.

He spent almost three years in prison, before entering a plea agreement that meant he could be released to house arrest in late 2016. 

The notorious criminal was described by Bloomberg as “Brazil’s black-market central banker, a career criminal who smuggled cash for the rich and powerful” in 2015.

Nelma and Alberto are no longer in contact, and she is in a new relationship with a man named Manoel Escudeiro.

She wears an electronic ankle monitoring bracelet, but lives in a beautiful apartment in Brazil. 

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She came under fire again in 2019 when she posted a video on how to undo the ankle tag. 

You can tune into Netflix to watch Nelma Kodama: The Queen of Dirty Money.