Boom Times for Organized Crime

By Saviano, Roberto | International Herald Tribune, August 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

Boom Times for Organized Crime


Saviano, Roberto, International Herald Tribune


Today's mafias are global organizations that operate everywhere and rake in billions from the world's economic crisis.

The global financial crisis has been a blessing for organized crime. A series of recent scandals has exposed the connection between some of the biggest global banks and the seamy underworld of mobsters, smugglers, drug traffickers and arms dealers. American banks have profited from money laundering by Latin American drug cartels, while the European debt crisis has strengthened the grip of the loan sharks and speculators who control the vast underground economies in countries like Spain and Greece.

Mutually beneficial relationships between bankers and gangsters aren't new, but what's remarkable is their reach at the highest levels of global finance. In 2010, Wachovia admitted that it had essentially helped finance the murderous drug war in Mexico by failing to identify and stop illicit transactions. The bank, which was acquired by Wells Fargo during the financial crisis, agreed to pay $160 million in fines and penalties for tolerating the laundering, which occurred between 2004 and 2007.

Last month, Senate investigators found that HSBC had for a decade improperly facilitated transactions by Mexican drug traffickers, Saudi financiers with ties to Al Qaeda and Iranian bankers trying to circumvent U.S. sanctions. The bank set aside $700 million to cover fines, settlements and other expenses related to the inquiry, and its chief of compliance resigned.

ABN Amro, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Lloyds and ING have reached expensive settlements with regulators after admitting to executing the transactions of clients in disreputable countries like Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Sudan.

Many of the illicit transactions preceded the 2008 crisis, but continuing turmoil in the banking industry created an opening for organized crime groups, enabling them to enrich themselves and grow in strength.

In 2009, Antonio Maria Costa, an Italian economist who then led the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told the British newspaper The Observer that "in many instances, the money from drugs was the only liquid investment capital" available to some banks at the height of the crisis. "Interbank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade and other illegal activities," he said. "There were signs that some banks were rescued that way."

The United Nations estimated that $1.6 trillion was laundered globally in 2009, of which about $580 billion was related to drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime.

A study last year by the Colombian economists Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejia concluded that the vast majority of profits from drug trafficking in Colombia were reaped by criminal syndicates in rich countries and laundered by banks in global financial centers like New York and London. They found that bank secrecy and privacy laws in Western countries often impeded transparency and made it easier for criminals to launder their money.

At a congressional hearing in February, Jennifer Shasky Calvery, a Justice Department official in charge of monitoring money laundering, said that "banks in the U.S. are used to funnel massive amounts of illicit funds."

The laundering, she explained, typically occurs in three stages. First, illicit funds are directly deposited in banks or deposited after being smuggled out of the United States and then back in. Then comes "layering," the process of separating criminal profits from their origin. Finally comes "integration," the use of seemingly legitimate transactions to hide ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately, investigators too often focus on the cultivation, production and trafficking of narcotics while missing the bigger, more sophisticated financial activities of crime rings.

Mob financing via banks has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s organized crime, which had previously dealt mainly in cash, started working its way into the banking system. …

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