LONG stretches of unmonitored frontier, well-established
organized crime families, and easy access to Colombia and North
America have made Venezuela one of the biggest money-laundering
havens in the Western Hemisphere, narcotics and legal experts say.
Until last week, it wasn't a crime.
Antidrug forces claimed a major victory Aug. 13 with the passage
of reforms that for the first time make money laundering a criminal
act in Venezuela.
The amendments outlaw anonymous bank accounts, force politicians
to reveal the sources of campaign contributions, establish more
rigorous customer identification procedures, and impose stiff
penalties of up to 25 years in prison on groups and individuals who
help legitimize money earned from drug activity.
While many legal and narcotics experts hope the reforms will
finally control the problem, skeptics say the judicial and
political elements of society are so corrupt they doubt the new
regulations will make a difference. Venezuelan banks have been
required to report all transactions exceeding $10,000 since 1990,
but this law has been considered ineffective, because the records
reportedly go unchecked for suspicious activity.
State Department officials in Washington say money-laundering
practices are becoming more sophisticated, but local authorities
say the activity is so blatant and prevalent in Venezuela that such
methods aren't necessary.
"All the schemes are for naught when it comes to laundering
money here," says a United States Embassy official in Caracas.
"It's a haven - there are no extraditions, no deportations.... I
would call it the nexus in the Western hemisphere."
Authorities say the leading players include major Italian
families connected with the Sicilian Mafia, a group of Lebanese
families, and allies of Colombian drug cartels. "Nobody could ever
destroy the tentacles that are already here," he adds.
At a United Nations meeting earlier this year in Vienna,
Venezuela was termed the laundering capital of Latin America and a
key cocaine transit point from Colombia to North America and Europe.
The estimates of the amount of money laundered through Venezuela
each year varies widely because the activity is so hard to pin
down. While the US State Department officially puts the Venezuela
number at about $3 billion, US Embassy officials here estimate that
$25-30 billion is laundered annually in Venezuela. They say some
$120 billion is laundered through the US each year.
The reformed law, which was approved unanimously by Congress,
won't become official until it is published and signed, says Najah
Kafouni de Rauseo, a lawyer with the National Committee Against the
Use of Illicit Drugs. …