Money launderers for ruthless Mexican drug gangs have long had a formidable ally: international banks.
Despite strict rules set by international regulatory bodies that require banks to “know their customer,” make inquiries about the source of large deposits of cash and report suspicious activity, they have failed to do so in a number of high-profile cases and instead have allowed billions in dirty money to be laundered.
And those who want to stop cartels from easily moving their money express concern that banks that are caught get off with a slap on the wrist.
Banking powerhouse Wachovia Corp. last year agreed to pay $160 million in forfeitures and fines after U.S. federal prosecutors accused it of “willfully” overlooking the suspicious character of more than $420 billion in transactions between the bank and Mexican currency-exchange houses — much of it probably drug money, investigators say.
Federal prosecutors said Wachovia failed to detect and report numerous operations that should have raised red flags, and continued to work with the exchange houses long after other banks stopped doing so because of the “high risk” that it was a money-laundering operation.
Wachovia was moving money on behalf of the exchange houses through wire transfers, traveler’s checks, even large hauls of bulk cash, investigators said. Some of the money was eventually traced to the purchase of small airplanes used to smuggle cocaine from South America to Mexico, they said.
“Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations,” U.S. Atty. Jeffrey H. Sloman said in announcing the case last year, hailed at the time by authorities as one of the most significant in stopping dirty money from contaminating the U.S. financial system.
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