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Originally published Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 8:58 PM

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United States banks' key role in Mexico's drug gangs and dirty money

Behind the carnage in Mexico is an industry that supplies hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines to Americans. The cartels have built a network of dealers in 231 U.S. cities from coast to coast, taking in about $39 billion in sales annually.

Bloomberg News

Just before sunset on April 10, 2006, a DC-9 jet landed at Ciudad del Carmen, 500 miles east of Mexico City. As soldiers on the ground approached the plane, the crew tried to shoo them away, saying there was a dangerous oil leak. So the troops grew suspicious and searched the jet.

They found 128 black suitcases, packed with 5.7 tons of cocaine, valued at $100 million. The stash was supposed to have been delivered from Caracas to drug traffickers in Toluca, Mexican prosecutors later found. Law-enforcement officials also discovered something else.

The smugglers had bought the DC-9 with laundered funds they transferred through two of the biggest banks in the U.S.: Wachovia and Bank of America. This was no isolated incident. Wachovia, it turns out, had made a habit of helping move money for Mexican drug smugglers. Wells Fargo, which bought Wachovia in 2008, has admitted in court that its unit failed to monitor and report suspected money laundering by narcotics traffickers.

The admission came in an agreement that Wachovia struck with federal prosecutors in March, and it sheds light on the role of U.S. banks in contributing to Mexico's violent drug trade.

Wachovia admitted it didn't do enough to spot illicit funds in handling $378.4 billion for Mexican-currency-exchange houses from 2004 to 2007. That's the largest violation of the Bank Secrecy Act, an anti-money-laundering law, in U.S. history — a sum equal to one-third of Mexico's current gross domestic product.

"Wachovia's blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations," says Jeffrey Sloman, the federal prosecutor who handled the case.

Since 2006, more than 22,000 people have been killed in drug-related battles. Among the dead are police, soldiers, journalists and ordinary citizens. The U.S. has pledged Mexico $1.1 billion in the past two years to aid in the fight against narcotics cartels.

Behind the carnage in Mexico is an industry that supplies hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines to Americans. The cartels have built a network of dealers in 231 U.S. cities from coast to coast, taking in about $39 billion in sales annually, according to the Justice Department.

Twenty million people in the U.S. regularly use illegal drugs, spurring street crime and wrecking families. Narcotics cost the U.S. economy $215 billion a year in overburdened courts, prisons and hospitals and lost productivity, the department says.

"It's the banks laundering money for the cartels that finances the tragedy," says Martin Woods, director of Wachovia's anti-money-laundering unit in London from 2006 to 2009. Woods says he quit the bank in disgust after executives ignored his documentation that drug dealers were funneling money through Wachovia's branch network.

"If you don't see the correlation between the money laundering by banks and the 22,000 people killed in Mexico, you're missing the point," Woods says.

Cleansing dirty cash

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Wachovia is just one of the U.S. and European banks that have been used for drug- money laundering. For the past two decades, Latin American drug traffickers have gone to U.S. banks to cleanse their dirty cash, says Paul Campo, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's financial crimes unit.

American Express Bank paid fines in 1994 and 2007 after admitting it had failed to spot and report drug dealers laundering money through its accounts. Drug traffickers used accounts at Bank of America in Oklahoma City to buy three planes that carried 10 tons of cocaine, according to Mexican court filings.

Federal agents caught people who work for Mexican cartels depositing illicit funds in Bank of America accounts in Atlanta, Chicago and Brownsville, Texas, from 2002 to 2009. Mexican drug dealers used shell companies to open accounts at London-based HSBC Holdings, an investigation by the Mexican Finance Ministry found.

Those two banks weren't accused of wrongdoing. Bank of America spokeswoman Shirley Norton and HSBC spokesman Roy Caple say laws bar them from discussing specific clients. They say their banks strictly follow the government rules.

A Mexican judge on Jan. 22 accused the owners of six money changers in Culiacán and Tijuana of laundering drug funds through their accounts at the Mexican units of Banco Santander, Citigroup and HSBC, according to court documents. The money changers are in jail while being tried. Citigroup, HSBC and Santander weren't accused of any wrongdoing. The three banks say Mexican law bars them from commenting on the case, adding that they each carefully enforce anti-money-laundering programs.

HSBC has stopped accepting dollar deposits in Mexico, and Citigroup no longer allows noncustomers to change dollars there. Citigroup detected suspicious activity in the Tijuana accounts, reported it to regulators and closed the accounts, Citigroup spokesman Paulo Carreno says.

On June 15, the Mexican Finance Ministry announced it would set limits for banks on cash deposits in dollars.

Wachovia's case

Mexico's drug cartels have become multinational criminal enterprises.

Some of the gangs have delved into other illegal activities such as gunrunning, kidnapping and smuggling people across the border, as well as into seemingly legitimate areas such as trucking, travel services and air cargo transport, according to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.

These criminal empires have no choice but to use the global banking system to finance their businesses, Mexican Senator Felipe Gonzalez says.

"With so much cash, the only way to move this money is through the banks," says Gonzalez, who carries a .38 revolver for personal protection. "I know this won't stop the narcos when they come through that door with machine guns," he says, pointing to the entrance to his office. "But at least I'll take one with me."

No bank has been more closely connected with Mexican money laundering than Wachovia.

After a 22-month investigation, the Justice Department on March 12 charged Wachovia, now owned by Wells Fargo, with violating the Bank Secrecy Act by failing to run an effective anti-money-laundering program.

Five days later, Wells Fargo promised in a Miami federal courtroom to revamp its detection systems. Wachovia's new owner paid $160 million in fines and penalties, less than 2 percent of its $12.3 billion profit in 2009.

If Wells Fargo keeps its pledge, the U.S. government will, according to the agreement, drop all charges against the bank in March 2011.

Wells Fargo regrets that some of Wachovia's former anti-money-laundering efforts fell short, spokeswoman Mary Eshet says. Wells Fargo has invested $42 million in the past three years to improve its anti-money-laundering program and has been working with regulators, she says.

"We have substantially increased the caliber and number of staff in our international investigations group, and we also significantly upgraded the monitoring software," Eshet says. The agreement bars the bank from contesting or contradicting the facts in its admission.

The bank declined to answer specific questions, including how much it made by handling $378.4 billion, including $4 billion of cash from Mexican exchange companies.

The Smurfs

Drug money moves back and forth across the border in an endless cycle. In the U.S., couriers take the cash from drug sales to Mexico — as much as $29 billion a year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

They hide it in cars and trucks to smuggle into Mexico. There, cartels pay people to deposit some of the cash into Mexican banks and branches of international banks. The narcos launder much of what's left through money changers.

By law, the money changers have to demand identification from anyone exchanging more than $500. They also have to report transactions higher than $5,000 to regulators.

The cartels get around these requirements by employing legions of individuals, including relatives, maids and gardeners, to convert small amounts of dollars into pesos or to make deposits in local banks. After that, cartels wire the money to a multinational bank.

The people making the small money exchanges are known as Smurfs, after the cartoon characters.

"They can use an army of people like Smurfs and go through $1 million before lunchtime," says Jerry Robinette, who oversees U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations along the border in east Texas.

The U.S. Treasury has been warning banks about big Mexican-currency-exchange firms laundering drug money since 1996. By 2004, many U.S. banks had closed their accounts with these companies.

Wachovia ignored warnings by regulators and police, according to the deferred-prosecution agreement.

One customer that Wachovia took on in 2004 was Casa de Cambio Puebla, a Puebla, Mexico-based currency-exchange company. Pedro Alatorre, who ran a Puebla branch in Mexico City, had created front companies for cartels, according to a pending Mexican criminal case against him.

A federal grand jury in Miami indicted Puebla, Alatorre and three other executives in February 2008 for drug trafficking and money laundering. In May 2008, the Justice Department sought extradition of the suspects, saying they used shell firms to launder $720 million through U.S. banks.

Puebla executives used the stolen identities of 74 people to launder money through Wachovia accounts, Mexican prosecutors say in court-filed reports.

"Wachovia handled all the transfers, and they never reported any as suspicious," says Jose Luis Marmolejo, a former head of the Mexican attorney general's financial crimes unit now in private practice.

It was the Puebla investigation that led U.S. authorities to the broader probe of Wachovia. On May 16, 2007, DEA agents conducted a raid of Wachovia's international banking offices in Miami. They had a court order to seize Puebla's accounts.

U.S. prosecutors and investigators then scrutinized the bank's dealings with Mexican-currency-exchange firms. That led to the March deferred-prosecution agreement.

With Puebla's Wachovia accounts seized, Alatorre and his partners shifted their laundering scheme to HSBC, according to financial documents cited in the Mexican criminal case against Alatorre.

In the three weeks after the DEA raided Wachovia, two of Alatorre's front companies, Grupo ETPB and Grupo Rahero, made 12 cash deposits totaling $1 million at an HSBC Mexican branch, Mexican investigators found.

The funds financed a Beechcraft King Air 200 plane that police seized on Dec. 29, 2007, in Cuernavaca, 50 miles south of Mexico City, according to information in the case against Alatorre.

Laundering money

For years, federal authorities watched as the wife and daughter of Oscar Oropeza, a drug smuggler working for the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel, deposited stashes of $20 bills several times a day at a Bank of America branch in Brownsville, Texas, less than 3 miles from the border.

Bank employees got to know the Oropezas by the smell of their money.

"I asked the tellers what they were talking about, and they said the money had this sweet smell like Bounce, those sheets you throw into the dryer," says Tom Salazar, an agent who investigated the family. "They told me that when they opened the vault, the smell of Bounce just poured out."

Oropeza, 48, was arrested May 31, 2007, by police in Saraland, Ala., who stopped him on a traffic violation. Checking his record, they learned of the investigation in Texas.

They searched the van and discovered 185 pounds of cocaine hidden under a false floor. That allowed federal agents to freeze Oropeza's bank accounts and search his marble-floored home in Brownsville, Robinette says.

Inside, investigators found a supply of Bounce alongside the clothes dryer.

All three Oropezas pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Brownsville to drug and money-laundering charges in March and April 2008. Oscar Oropeza was sentenced to 15 years in prison; his wife was ordered to serve 10 months and his daughter got 6 months.

Bank of America's Norton says, "We not only fulfilled our regulatory obligation, but we proactively worked with law enforcement on these matters."

Banks aren't the only financial institutions that have turned a blind eye to drug cartels in moving illicit funds. Western Union, the world's largest money transfer firm, agreed to pay $94 million in February 2010 to settle civil and criminal investigations by the Arizona attorney general's office.

Undercover state police posing as drug dealers bribed Western Union employees to illegally transfer money, says Cameron Holmes, an assistant attorney general.

"Their allegiance was to the smugglers," Holmes says. "What they thought about during work was 'How may I please my highest-spending customers the most?'"

Workers in more than 20 Western Union offices allowed the customers to use multiple names, pass fictitious identifications and smudge their fingerprints on documents, investigators say in court records.

"In all the time we did undercover operations, we never once had a bribe turned down," says Holmes, citing court affidavits.

Western Union has made significant improvements, it complies with anti-money-laundering laws and works closely with regulators and police, spokesman Tom Fitzgerald says.

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