The Banksters and the Cartels

Two Colombian economists decided to see who’s getting money off the illegal drug trade. And they discovered that American and British banks are getting a big chunk of the profits. (h/t Chris from Americablog) That’s because the cartels are laundering their proceeds through those banks.

The most far-reaching and detailed analysis to date of the drug economy in any country – in this case, Colombia – shows that 2.6% of the total street value of cocaine produced remains within the country, while a staggering 97.4% of profits are reaped by criminal syndicates, and laundered by banks, in first-world consuming countries.

Mind you, I’m not sure the analysis would be that different for any agricultural export. Even for food, farmers make less than 12% of all the money spent.

But one of the factors, the economists contend, is that the US more stringently polices money laundering in Colombian banks than in US ones.

Colombia’s banks, meanwhile, said Mejía, “are subject to rigorous control, to stop laundering of profits that may return to our country. Just to bank $2,000 involves a huge amount of paperwork – and much of this is overseen by Americans.”

“In Colombia,” said Gaviria, “they ask questions of banks they’d never ask in the US. If they did, it would be against the laws of banking privacy. In the US you have very strong laws on bank secrecy, in Colombia not – though the proportion of laundered money is the other way round. It’s kind of hypocrisy, right?”

I have noted (as does the Guardian), how banks like Wachovia used drug proceeds to help offset their losses from the mortgage bubble shitpile. I have noted how much less stringent we were in rooting out all the crime than we are with other banks, such as the Lebanese Canadian Bank. And I noted Citi’s recent wrist slap for allowing money laundering in the same shitpile period.

This article shows the other side to that: while our banksters get rich off of crime here, Colombia and Mexico and Honduras suffer the violence that results. That really has to change.

Whose Illicit Money Did Citi Help Launder?

Back when the story of how Wachovia helped drug cartels launder money was breaking in 2010, reports said that cartels had also used Citi to launder their money.

A Mexican judge on Jan. 22 accused the owners of six centros cambiarios, or money changers, in Culiacan and Tijuana of laundering drug funds through their accounts at the Mexican units of Banco Santander SA, Citigroup Inc. and HSBC, according to court documents filed in the case.

Citigroup, HSBC and Santander, which is the largest Spanish bank by assets, 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 non-customers 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.

At the time, it seemed that Citi had reported the attempted money laundering as required by US bank secrecy laws.

I guess they didn’t report everything they were supposed to. The Office of the Comptroller and the Currency, Citi’s regulator, just announced a cease and desist order covering inadequacies in Citi’s anti-money laundering compliance.

(3) Some of the critical deficiencies in the elements of the Bank’s BSA/AML compliance program include the following:
(a) The Bank has internal control weaknesses including the incomplete identification of high risk customers in multiple areas of the bank, inability to assess and monitor client relationships on a bank-wide basis, inadequate scope of periodic reviews of customers, weaknesses in the scope and documentation of the validation and optimization process applied to the automated transaction monitoring system, and inadequate customer due diligence;
(b) The Bank failed to adequately conduct customer due diligence and enhanced due diligence on its foreign correspondent customers, its retail banking customers, and its international personal banking customers and did not properly obtain and analyze information to ascertain the risk and expected activity of particular customers;
(c) The Bank self-reported to the OCC that from 2006 through 2010, the Bank failed to adequately monitor its remote deposit capture/international cash letter instrument processing in connection with foreign correspondent banking;
(d) As a result of that inadequate monitoring, the Bank failed to file timely SARs involving remote deposit capture/international cash letter activity in its foreign correspondent banking business; and
(e) The Bank’s independent BSA/AML audit function failed to identify systemic deficiencies found by the OCC during the examination process. [my emphasis]

Note that among other things, Citi took this opportunity to ‘fess up to not adequately monitoring the use of cash letters (see this article for a description of how cash letters are used in money laundering) in the 2006-2010 period. You know? The period when Citi was reeling because it had invested too deeply in shitpile?

Now maybe in the near future, Treasury will release a similar notice telling us whether all this negligence on Citi’s part only could have–or actually did–help some nefarious types launder money. But for now, OCC’s not telling. Nor is OCC fining Citi (which they would normally do if Citi violates this consent order–banks, you see, get do-overs when they fuck up).

Continue reading

What If We Scrubbed Wachovia Like We Did the Lebanese Canadian Bank?

I’ll have several things to say about Jo Becker’s story on the big Hezbollah money laundering ring. For the moment, I’m most interested in how Treasury Department authorities uncovered the ring: by first declaring Lebanese Canadian Bank a money launderer, providing reason to break it up. When an affiliate of Société Générale agreed to buy the bank, they also agreed to scrub its money laundering accounts. To do so, it specifically had someone beyond the Big Four accounting firm that had “overlooked” the accounts in the past scrub the books, including bringing in John Ashcroft.

As part of its own agreement with Treasury officials, Lebanon’s Central Bank set up a process to scrub the books. But compliance officers at S.G.B.L.’s French partner, Société Générale, were skeptical of the Central Bank’s choice of investigators. One of them, the local affiliate of the international auditing firm Deloitte, had presumably missed the drug-related accounts the first time around, when it served as the Lebanese Canadian Bank’s outside auditor.

And, according to people knowledgeable about Lebanese banking, the central bank’s on-the-ground representative had been recommended to that post by Hezbollah.

As an extra step, to reassure wary international banks, the chairman of S.G.B.L.,  Antoun Sehnaoui, commissioned a parallel audit, with the help of Société Générale’s chief money-laundering compliance officer. And to make sure that his bank did not run afoul of Treasury officials by inadvertently taking on dirty assets, he also hired a consultant intimately familiar with the Patriot Act provision used to take the bank down: John Ashcroft, the former attorney general whose Justice Department wrote the law.

And then it investigated (presumably using pattern analysis) each and every account at the bank.

Initially, the auditors looked only at records for the past year. As they began combing through thousands of accounts, they looked for customers with known links to Hezbollah. They also looked for telltale patterns: repeated deposits of vast amounts of cash, huge wire transfers broken into smaller transactions and transfers between companies in such wildly incongruous lines of business that they made sense only as fronts to camouflage the true origin of the funds.

Each type of red flag was assigned a point value. An account with 1 or 2 points on a scale to 10 was likely to survive. One with 8 or 9 cried out for further scrutiny. Ultimately, the auditors were left with nearly 200 accounts that appeared to add up to a giant money-laundering operation, with Hezbollah smack in the middle, according to American officials. Complex webs of transactions featured the same companies over and over again, most of them owned by Shiite businessmen, many known Hezbollah supporters. Some have since been identified as Hezbollah fronts.

So effectively, they took a bank known to ignore money laundering controls and took it apart, piece by piece, to see all the money laundering it had sheltered.

Compare how the US dealt with Wachovia, which was involved in laundering a far greater chunk of money for drug cartels: $363 billion.

US authorities partly became aware Wachovia was helping cartels launder money when they captured a plane in 2006. In addition, the DEA first noted their role in launder Casas de Cambio money in 2005, and a British whistleblower had identified signs that same year.

But it’s clear that by 2007 officials from top regulators were aware of the problems.

Late in 2007, Woods attended a function at Scotland Yard where colleagues from the US were being entertained. There, he sought out a representative of the Drug Enforcement Administration and told him about the casas de cambio, the SARs and his employer’s reaction. The Federal Reserve and officials of the office of comptroller of currency in Washington DC then “spent a lot of time examining the SARs” that had been sent by Woods to Charlotte from London.

“They got back in touch with me a while afterwards and we began to put the pieces of the jigsaw together,” says Woods. What they found was – as Costa says – the tip of the iceberg of what was happening to drug money in the banking industry, but at least it was visible and it had a name: Wachovia.

But the prosecution of Wachovia wasn’t initiated until after Wells Fargo took it over in 2008. Which means Treasury could have insisted on the same process–an examination of a bank with known problems with money laundering to find all of its criminal clients.

It’s possible Treasury did–or is still doing that. Continue reading

SWIFT and the Asymmetric Control of Data

I’ve been thinking a lot about SWIFT lately. Partly that’s because of the renewed discussion on how some big banks relied on cash from drug cartels to survive as the housing bubble began to pop. Partly that’s because of advance publicity for Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands and coverage of corporate tax dodging. And partly it’s because of this piece, declaring privacy dead without realizing that privacy is only dead for the little people.

You see, I’m increasingly convinced SWIFT will one day be the ultimate battleground over whether the US government can just suck up and analyze all the data it wants.

As a reminder, SWIFT (or Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunicatiom) is the online messaging system the world’s finance industry uses to transfer funds internationally. It records the flows of trillions of dollars each day.

It first got big news coverage when Eric Lichtblau and James Risen reported on how our government uses it to track terrorist financing. But of course, the database tracks all sorts of financial flows, not just terrorist financing. Thus, it could be used to track drug finance, tax cheats (both corporate and individual), and the looting of various nations’ riches by their elites.

Swift, a former government official said, was “the mother lode, the Rosetta stone” for financial data.

Indeed, according to Lichtblau’s Bush’s Law, the database appears to track even more information than tax havens would ever collect.

[T]he routing instructions that the company used to move money around the globe often included much more detailed data than any other system: passport information, phone numbers and local addresses, critical identifying information about the senders and the recipients, the purpose of the transaction, and more. (243)

In a world where–as described in Shaxson’s book–our financial system largely runs on the strategic shifting of money behind the cloak of corporate anonymity or secret back accounts, SWIFT appears to be the one place where there is full transparency.

The US and UK in particular, according to Shaxson, have used the secrecy that corporate laws and associated tax havens can offer to sustain their hegemonic position in the world. As we saw, giving a bunch of drug cartels means to launder their money allowed Wachovia to survive for years after the time when it should have collapsed; the US and UK are just larger versions of the same gimmick.

Which is why, I’ve become convinced, the response to NYT’s reporting on SWIFT was (and remains) so much more intense than even their exposure of the illegal wiretap program. The shell game of international finance only works so long as we sustain the myth that money moves in secret; but of course there has to be one place, like SWIFT, where those secrets are revealed. And so, in revealing that the US was using SWIFT to track terror financing, the NYT was also making it clear that there is such a window of transparency on a purportedly secret system.

And the CIA has, alone among the world’s intelligence services, access to it.

Continue reading

How Allowing Money Laundering Keeps Our Bubblicious Finance Afloat

Last June, Bloomberg did a long story on the Deferred Prosecution Agreement that Wachovia negotiated with DOJ. As “punishment” for helping Mexican drug gangs to launder more than $363 billion  through casas de cambios for three years, Wachovia had to pay $50 million fine and a $110 million forfeiture of the proceeds that were clearly from drug gangs.

In my post on Bloomberg’s article last year, I compared the size of this business (plus some other illegal ones Wachovia engaged in) to how much Wachovia was losing in mortgage shitpile.

So $373 billion in wire services (some of which were surely legal), $4 billion in bulk cash services, and some portion of $47 billion in digital pouch services (again, some of which is surely legal and may pertain to remittances). Compare those numbers to the $40 to $60 billion or so in Wachovia subprime losses Wells Fargo ate when it took over Wachovia. Was Wachovia laundering money for drug cartels because it was so badly exposed in mortgage-backed securities, or was it so heavily involved in products that could be used for money laundering just for fun?

It sure looked to me like Wachovia was covering this up–and berating their own money laundering guy who kept pointing to these transactions–because they were so deep in the shitpile.

The Guardian just did its own long story on this (h/t NC) that, among other things, confirms my suspicion there was a connection between the shitpile and the money laundering.

At the height of the 2008 banking crisis, Antonio Maria Costa, then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime, said he had evidence to suggest the proceeds from drugs and crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to banks on the brink of collapse. “Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade,” he said. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”

Of course, it almost certainly wasn’t just drug lords. Our banks were almost certainly overlooking other dubious cash transfers during this time, from oil dictators to the mob to illegal corporate gains.

And we couldn’t prosecute such money laundering, the Guardian article suggests, because doing so would have hastened the collapse of the bubble.

“Creative” Wall Street and Money-Laundering

I have long maintained that we will eventually learn that Citibank took over where BCCI and then Riggs Bank left off: serving as a money laundering vehicle used by drug cartels and other organized crime, terrorists, and spooks. But this article (h/t scribe) on the role of big banks in laundering Mexican drug money reports that–while Citibank has been implicated in money laundering (but took the appropriate regulatory steps in response)–there are a number of other banks deeply implicated:

  • Wachovia (now owned by Wells Fargo)
  • Bank of America
  • American Express
  • HSBC
  • Banco Santander

Most of these banks were implicated in Mexican legal filings. But in March, Wachovia entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with the government that reveals some of the details behind its money laundering.

The DPA lays out the means by which Wachovia enabled money laundering as follows:

  • Allowing Mexican Casas de Cambio (exchange houses) to wire through Wachovia. From May 2004 through May 2007, Wachovia had processed at least $373 billion in CDC wire activity.
  • Offering a “bulk cash” service, in which Wachovia would arrange physical transport of large amounts of US dollars collected by the CDCs into the US. From May 2004 through May 2007, Wachovia processed over $4 billion in bulk cash for the CDCs.
  • Providing a “pouch deposit” service, in which CDCs would accept checks and travelers checks drawn on US banks, aggregate them into a pouch, and then forward them to Wachovia for processing. By May 2005, Wachovia had set up a digital scan system for this service. From May 2004 through May 2007, Wachovia processed $47 billion in digital pouch deposits for all its correspondent banking customers, including what it did for the CDCs.

The DPA also describes how Wachovia helped telemarketers steal directly from victims’ accounts–the subject of an unrelated lawsuit going back some years.

So here are two key details of this.

First, it appears that Wachovia deliberately got deeper into money-laundering for CDCs in 2005 even as the government issued more alerts about the way drug cartels were using CDCs.

As early as 2004, Wachovia understood the risk that was associated with doing business with the Mexican CDCs. Wachovia was aware of the general industry warnings. As early as July 2005, Wachovia was aware that other large U.S. banks were exiting the CDC business based on [anti-money laundering] concerns.

Despite these warnings, Wachovia remained in the business. And in September 2005, Wachovia purchased the right to solicit the international correspondent banking customers of Union Bank of California (“UBOC”). Wachovia knew that UBOC was exiting the CDC market due to AML problems. Wachovia hired at least one person from UBOC who had a significant role in the CDC business at UBOC. After UBOC exited the CDC business, Wachovia’s business volume increased notably.

September 2005 was definitely before most people realized the giant shitpile–of which Wachovia held more than its fair share–was going to explode. But Wachovia was already deep into it.

So $373 billion in wire services (some of which were surely legal), $4 billion in bulk cash services, and some portion of $47 billion in digital pouch services (again, some of which is surely legal and may pertain to remittances). Compare those numbers to the $40 to $60 billion or so in Wachovia subprime losses Wells Fargo ate when it took over Wachovia. Was Wachovia laundering money for drug cartels because it was so badly exposed in mortgage-backed securities, or was it so heavily involved in products that could be used for money laundering just for fun?

Now, for all of this, DOJ made Wells Fargo pay $160 million: $50 million that is an outright fine, and $110 million for what DOJ said it had identified as clear drug proceeds laundered through Wachovia. Now, granted, DOJ is fining Wells Fargo (beneficiary of huge amounts of free money from the Fed in recent years and the recipient of huge tax deductions for taking over Wachovia), not Wachovia. And granted, this was the largest fine ever for money laundering. But as the Bloomberg story notes, that’s less than 2% of Wells Fargo’s profits last year. And isn’t even as much as Wachovia got in deposits–$418 million–from the fraudulent telemarketing scheme.

Then there’s the bigger question. Who else was using these vehicles? Banks that enable this kind of money laundering tend to be indiscriminate about their client base. And as I noted when I started this post, money laundering for drug cartels tends to go hand in hand with money laundering for other organized crime, terrorists, and spooks. Given the scale of what Wachovia was doing, where are the other busts?

And while we’re looking for those other busts, note that the investigation of Wachovia started in May 2007, 17 months before the government brokered the Wells Fargo takeover. Is there any chance that Treasury, which would have been involved in this, was unaware of the massive amounts of money laundering Wachovia had been engaged in when they brokered that deal? Recall, too, the weirdness over the competition between Citi and Wells Fargo for the privilege of taking on the Wachovia shitpile. The Federal government was at one point prepared to take on a portion of Wachovia’s shitpile to allow Citi to take over the bank for a dollar a share. And when Citi CEO Vikram Pandit lost out on the deal, Andrew Ross Sorkin reported in Too Big to Fail, he told Sheila Bair, that “This isn’t just about Citi … There are other issues we need to consider. I need to speak to you privately. … This is not right. It’s not right for the country. It’s just not right!”

I don’t want to get too tinfoil about this. But it strikes me that the efforts to keep Wall Street and all its celebrated creativity intact serves to make it easier for banks like Wachovia to engage in widespread money-laundering. That is, it’s not just shadow banking as it is politely understood, but banking for entire shadow networks, both our own and our enemies.

Update: Aaron v. Andrew fixed–thanks SaltinWound.

Update: Here’s the full Bloomberg story.

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