Illegal Tender

By Stone, Alexander | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Illegal Tender


Stone, Alexander, Harvard International Review


Counterfeit Dollars and Colombian Crime

Though infamous for its thriving narcotics industry, Colombia is also the world's leading producer of counterfeit US currency.

Evidence shows that the two industries are converging, with drug producers increasingly relying on counterfeit cash to fund their operations. Most troubling for US drug-intervention efforts, counterfeit currency is also being used to fund leftist guerillas, who in turn provide a shield for drug production.

The link between drugs and counterfeiting was forged during the mid-1980s, in the heyday of the big drug cartels, when members of the legendary Cali cartel began using counterfeit dollars to buy coca base from unwitting farmers. Since then, counterfeiting has flourished as a cottage industry in Colombia, supporting a variety of illegal activities. Today, hidden money factories are scattered throughout the country, pumping out cash to supply global distribution chains in the United States, Latin America, and Europe.

In part, the low cost of making counterfeit money has enabled the rise of large-scale counterfeiting. Convincing forgeries can be produced using relatively inexpensive technology. For example, Colombian counterfeits are almost exclusively made on old-fashioned offset printing presses but are nonetheless some of the highest-quality forgeries in the world. Colombian counterfeiters are skilled craftsmen who have spent years honing their trade. Photos of authentic notes are touched up before being etched on steel plates and printed onto bleached, real one-dollar bills. The phony notes are then mass produced and sold on the black market for a fraction of their face value. Of course, the copies are never exact, since offset printing cannot achieve the unique surface texture produced by the high-end presses and state-of-the-art intaglio method used by the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Nevertheless, the copies are generally good enough to fool most people.

The demand for counterfeit dollars is high. The US dollar is the most commonly used currency in the world, and its popularity abroad (60 percent of all US dollars circulate outside the United States) makes it the top choice among counterfeiters. Colombia now produces roughly 80 percent of all foreign-made counterfeit US dollars and is responsible for one-third of the estimated US$400 million in counterfeit bills circulating throughout the United States. Dollarization has increased this demand and left more countries vulnerable to counterfeiting. For example, Colombian counterfeiters began targeting Ecuador, already a common route for drugs and weapons, after Ecuador's shift to the US dollar. Because people were unfamiliar with the new currency, they were easily fooled by the counterfeit bills.

Counterfeiting operations are often difficult to track down since they usually operate out of hideouts and require few employees. After an exhaustive two-year investigation, law-enforcement officials uncovered one such outfit in November 2000: a small, subterranean dugout that housed one of the largest known counterfeiting operations in the world. Ensconced deep in the Andean banana groves of western Colombia, the cinderblock bunker had churned out an estimated US$3 million in phony US bills every week for the previous 10 years. …

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