Drugs and Money: Laundering Latin America's Cocaine Dollars

By Robert E. Grosse | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

La Mina, 1985–88

La Mina was the largest cocaine money laundering scheme uncovered to date. This laundry was operated principally for the Medellin cartel (Pablo Escobar, Jorge and Fabio Ochoa, Gerardo Moncada, Jose Rodriguez-Gacha, et al.) during the period 1985–88. La Mina laundered more than $U.S. 1 billion during its four-year operation, and in the related Operation Polar Cap, U.S. authorities laundered more than $U.S. 300 million, capturing and successfully forfeiting about $U.S. 50 million. The related Operation C-Chase produced the forfeiture of another $U.S. 14 million. In the Los Angeles prosecution of La Mina, 35 people were arrested and 292 kilos of cocaine were seized, along with the money. 1

La Mina operated as a gold mine for the Medellin cartel—using gold exports and fake exports from Latin America as well as gold trading in the United States to hide the source of the dollars being laundered. The scheme began in 1985, when Argentine gold refiner Raul Vivas found that he could earn large profits from shipping gold-plated lead to the United States and remit drug dollars in apparent payment for the shipments. The idea was presented to him by Eduardo Martinez, sometimes called the chief money manager for the Medellin cartel. Vivas was asked to arrange for gold sales that would justify large payments of cash in the United States, and then to pass the money on to cartel bank accounts while keeping the gold. Vivas was able to use his regular business of selling gold to hide the source of the money involved.

To operate this venture, he opened an exchange house in Montevideo, Uruguay, called Cambio Italia, and he used it to receive the funds transfers. Uruguay often is called the Switzerland of South America, and its banking system has been largely open to international transactions, even during the periods of

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