Money-Laundering Scheme Squashed; Customs Agents Recover $30 million.(NATION)

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Federal agents have smashed an $80 million international money laundering scheme involving the diversion of illicit profits from Colombian drug dealers through life insurance companies in the United States, the isle of Man and other offshore locations.

A two-year undercover investigation, known as "Operation Capstone" and led by the U.S. Customs Service, netted nearly $30 million in cash, life insurance policies and bonds, and nine arrests in Colombia.

Panamanian authorities, who took part in the multinational probe, also froze $1.2 million in accounts based on evidence uncovered in Colombia and from federal prosecutors in Florida Friday. The Florida prosecutors announced grand jury indictments against five Colombian nationals on money laundering violations.

The probe continues, and officials expect additional arrests and seizures.

"This investigation reveals that there are no limits to which drug traffickers and their money laundering accomplices will go to hide and clean their illegal drug profits," said U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner. "Here, they used life insurance to invest and cleanse their dirty money.

"The life insurance industry must be ever-vigilant in preventing the use of its industry to launder the profits of criminal syndicates," he said.

Customs spokesman Jim Michie described the money-laundering scheme as a sophisticated plan in which Colombian drug cartels purchased life insurance policies through brokers in the United States, the Isle of Man and other locations, listing their associates as the beneficiaries.

The policies were funded by tens of millions of dollars in drug profits sent in checks and wire transfers to the insurance companies by third parties around the globe, he said. Once a policy was created, a policyholder could fund it beyond its face value and make early withdrawals.

Mr. Michie said investigators found that the cartels routinely liquidated their drug-financed life insurance policies after short periods of time, despite penalties for the early withdrawals. …