A lot has changed in the drug trade since the 1980s, when I went undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration, infiltrating the top echelons of Colombia’s drug cartels and helping bring down money-laundering bankers. Back then, the Medellín cartel had a network of operatives that distributed cocaine shipments to wholesale buyers in the United States. Mexico was simply a transshipment point where commercial jets laden with huge cargoes of cocaine were safely off-loaded. The Colombians gave Mexican cartel operatives and corrupt military personnel as much as 20 percent of the shipments in exchange for the use of military bases and other airstrips for secure landing and storage. The remaining 80 percent was moved into the U.S. and sold through a network of Colombian distributors operating there.
These days, Colombian cartels sell much of their cocaine directly to Mexican cartels, which then take the bulk of the risk, distributing the drug in the U.S. with the help of gangs entrenched in our cities. Meanwhile, terrorist groups including Hezbollah and Hamas have been clearly shown to work with the cartels in global cocaine trafficking and money laundering.
A lot has stayed the same too. We still face the inconvenient truth that portions of the international banking and business communities service the underworld by transforming mountains of ill-gotten cash into legitimate-appearing assets. These bankers and businessmen rob people around the world of their freedom by enabling criminal organizations to create a veil of legitimacy around dirty fortunes that are used to corrupt everything from families to governments. In order to influence politicians, prosecutors, judges, cops and even armies, the cartels rely on their ability to enrich people in clandestine ways. They can’t walk into a politician’s office and plop a duffel bag full of cash onto the desk, but if that cash is moved into a bank that extends a “legitimate” loan to a company the politician controls, no one is the wiser. In the past seven years, more than a dozen banks, some based in the U.S., have admitted to criminal offenses in connection with the movement of dirty money, including laundering drug proceeds.
We still face the inconvenient truth that portions of the international banking and business communities service the underworld.
Segments of the banking and business communities market underworld money because there is little likelihood they’ll get caught and the profits are very high. U.S. law enforcement authorities identify and seize less than one percent of the annual $400 billion in illegal drug proceeds earned globally; professional money launderers can make as much as 20 percent of a criminal’s fortune. The only thing that will turn this around is a real fear in the hearts and minds of launderers that their conduct will land them behind bars for the better part of the rest of their lives. As it stands now, the law enforcement world does not invest the resources or brainpower needed to identify and prosecute money launderers. Most criminal prosecutions for money laundering are developed secondarily when cops prove someone committed some other crime and conducted a transaction with tainted funds.
So what can we do to make the world safer and more free? For starters, we have to find a formula that will reduce demand—our insatiable appetite for illegal drugs is the fuel that keeps the cartel engines running—and make education and economic opportunity available to the less fortunate so they have a real path of hope that’s resistant to the lure of drugs.
On a global level, we need an aggressive plan to identify and prosecute those who service the underworld—a plan to change the failed corporate culture that has produced money launderers within the international banking and business communities. We need a multiagency, multi-national task force with the sole responsibility of identifying the world’s top money-laundering threats. This task force would become the entity with primary jurisdiction for prosecuting money-laundering cases, just as the DEA is now the primary agency recognized for prosecuting drug cases and the U.S. Secret Service is known for handling currency-counterfeiting cases.
Finally, we must accept that drug cartels do far more than simply make illegal drugs available worldwide. Their most dangerous product is corruption. They buy significant influence within governments through payoffs, they ruthlessly murder, and they steal freedom from virtually anyone in their path. People in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, nations in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world experience this death and destruction every day. Even our own country is no stranger to cartel-bred violence: The bloodshed within our borders caused by illegal drugs is at epidemic proportions.
Clearly, the way we’re fighting this war is not working.
Robert Mazur, author of The Infiltrator and subject of the movie of the same name, was a federal agent for 27 years, many of them spent investigating international money-laundering cases.