Awash In Cash, Drug Cartels Rely On Big Banks To Launder Profits

Money Laundering

The Sinaloa Cartel, headquartered on Mexico’s northern Pacific Coast, is constantly exploring new ways to launder its gargantuan profits. The State Department reports that Mexican trafficking organizations earn between $19 and $29 billion every year from selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines on the streets of American cities.

And Sinaloa is reportedly the richest, most powerful of them all, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The capture last month of the Mexican druglord Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman has cast a spotlight on the smuggling empire he built.

One key to the Sinaloa Cartel’s success has been to use the global banking system to launder all this cash.

“It’s very important for them to get that money into the banking system and do so with as little scrutiny as possible,” says Jim Hayes, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations for the New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. He was lead agent in the 2012 case that revealed how Sinaloa money men used HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks, as their private vault.

ICE says in 2007 and 2008, the Sinaloa Cartel and a Colombian cartel wire-transferred $881 million in illegal drug proceeds into U.S. accounts.

Huge Daily Deposits

According to a subsequent investigation by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, cartel operatives would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in a single day using boxes designed to fit the exact dimensions of the teller’s window at HSBC branches in Mexico.

Many drug cartel members die young, and when they do, their families often spend lavishly to construct mausoleums that look like small condos.

The bank ignored basic anti-money laundering controls, as the investigation found. In 2007 and 2008, the bank’s personnel in Mexico wired $7 billion dollars to corresponding U.S. dollar accounts in New York. These were more dollars than even larger Mexican banks wired to U.S. accounts. ICE says some of it was drug proceeds.

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