Cocaine trade fuels Euro laundering

A cocaine boom in Europe and the continent’s strong currency have combined to fuel a thriving industry: euro laundering.

With the euro approaching $1.50 and soaring demand for cocaine in countries like Spain and Italy, Europe has become a far more lucrative place to do business for Latin American drug cartels than in previous years.

To obscure the origins of the funds, and escape government scrutiny in the process, the cartels use a complex system to launder their proceeds – much of which is landing on U.S. shores.

In late March, U.S. authorities arrested a man carrying a leather duffel bag who had just landed at Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from Santiago, Chile. Inside the bag was more than $1.9 million in cash, mostly in bundles of 500 euro and 200 euro notes.

U.S. and Chilean law enforcement officials believe the man was at the end of a money-laundering trail that begins in Europe. Over a period of four and a half years, he and his associates flew to the U.S. from Latin America some 280 times, openly toting more than $244 million worth of euros into the country, according to documents in a case brought by federal authorities in U.S. District Court in New York.

The big bills have become so symbolic of the lush life that they have recently crept into pop culture: The rapper Jay-Z’s video for Blue Magic – the debut single from his new album ”American Gangster” – features a suitcase full of 500 euro notes and someone thumbing through a stack of them as Jay-Z raps the words, ”the kilo business.” Hype Williams, director of the music video, said that he and Jay-Z chose euros because they are ”more valuable” and because they wanted to ”one-up” their hip-hop competitors by showing ”the things people are into now.”

The wads of euros carried by people like the man arrested at LAX are often the spoils of Europe-bound cocaine shipments – many of which transit through Africa, law-enforcement officials say.

Consumption of the drug has soared in much of Western Europe, according to a report released last year by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. In Italy, use of the drug rose to 2.1 percent of the general population in 2005 from 1.1 percent just four years earlier. In France, it tripled from 2000 to 2005, from 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent of the adult population. Cocaine use in England doubled from 1998 to 2006, according to Britain’s National Health Service, to 2.4 percent among adults.

Some narco-euros are laundered directly in Europe. But officials say the lion’s share is routed back to South America as cash and eventually ends up in the U.S.

”This is still a cash business,” says Donald Semesky, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s head of financial-crimes investigations.

The first step is to convert small bills accumulated from thousands of street sales into 500 euro notes, which are easy to transport. Obtaining large quantities of these conspicuous notes, though, isn’t easy. So drug traffickers turn to specialized criminal rings – whose members are often involved in banking and real estate – to gain access to them, says Jose Manuel Alvarez Luna, chief of the money-laundering section of the Spanish police.

Spain is the center for such aggregation, according to authorities. A high-level Spanish banking official says a disproportionate share of the euro zone’s 500 euro notes, known as Bin Ladens for their scarcity, circulate in Spain.

The purpose of money-laundering is to disguise the criminal origins of ill-gotten gains so the funds appear legitimate. In most cases, laundering also helps criminals escape the notice of tax collectors and law-enforcement officials, boosting the value of their illegal proceeds.

Particularly since 9/11, tightened antilaundering regulations, known by banks as ”know your customer” rules, have forced drug cartels to use more circuitous routes to circulate their funds around the globe.

For starters, the drug cartels do not themselves bring their narco-euros to the U.S. Instead, they usually sell their euros to South American black-market currency brokers or to foreign-exchange houses, known in Spanish as casas de cambio. The casas’ business as currency-exchange houses gives them a natural cover for moving large amounts of cash.

But in South America, there are few if any legitimate buyers for the huge sums of euros that the casas obtain – directly or indirectly – from the traffickers. So the casas funnel most of the narco-euros, sometimes via middlemen, through a chain of exchange houses in countries like Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Chile, says the DEA’s Mr. Semesky.

Often, the drug traffickers will sell their euros for Colombian pesos, and then the euros entering the U.S. no longer belong to the drug cartels but to the casa de cambio. In other cases, says Mr. Semesky, traffickers pay the casas to move funds into one of their U.S. bank accounts. These funds aren’t usually intended for withdrawal, but rather to pay various debts. This is achieved by wiring funds to the account of whomever the trafficker wishes to pay.

On a recent night at a bar on Madrid’s bustling Gran Via, a shirtless, tattooed waiter served tables and a buxom drag queen in a nurse’s uniform worked the crowd. In the trendy venue was a man in his 30s who talked by cellphone with his dealers. A few minutes later, he stepped outside, leaned into the window of a small car and handed over 60 euros, or about $90. For that sum, he received one gram of cocaine.

Such street sales have surged. Spain now has a larger percentage of its population (3 percent) using cocaine than the U.S. (2.3 percent), the previous top per-capita consumer, according to United Nations figures. In the first half of 2007, a kilo of cocaine sold for 33,000 euros, or about $43,900, in Madrid, more than triple the $12,500-$14,600 it fetched in Los Angeles and far more than the $13,000-$26,000 it sold for in New York, according to the Spanish police and the DEA.

Last year, seven European countries banded together to form the Maritime Analysis and Operations Center-Narcotics, or MAOC-N, an international agency dedicated to stopping drug traffic over the Atlantic. Already, the center is helping to make major busts.

In October, on the high seas off West Africa, Spanish authorities – acting on a tip from MAOC-N – seized an aging, cockroach-infested trawler. Called the Opnor, it allegedly had more than three metric tons of cocaine hidden below the floor of its cargo hold. Apparently registered in Panama, the vessel was captained by a grizzled Dutch man in his late 60s and is believed to have been heading toward Senegal.

The boat was following a typical pattern, authorities say. They surmise that, if it hadn’t been seized, its cocaine would have been warehoused in West Africa, where crushing poverty, weak law enforcement and, often, rampant corruption make for an ideal way station. The traffickers would have then sent the drugs to Europe by boat, either directly or via North Africa. Increasingly, say Spanish and American authorities, cocaine is also being flown from North Africa in small planes landing in Spain and Portugal on clandestine airstrips.

The traffickers were forced to take those routes because Spanish, Portuguese and British authorities were intercepting boats coming to Europe directly from South America.

Spain is a favorite entry point because of its proximity to Africa, its long coastline and its language, which it shares with Colombia and most other South American countries. Spanish officials say they seized almost 100 metric tons of cocaine in 2005 and 2006. According to United Nations statistics, Spain seized more cocaine than any European nation between 1999 and 2005.

Authorities suspect that Europe’s thriving cocaine business likely provided the euros in the duffel bag of Mauricio Mazza-Alaluf, the man arrested at LAX in March. Along with a cousin, Luis Mazza-Olmos, he ran an exchange house in downtown Santiago, Chile, according to U.S. and Chilean law-enforcement officials.

The probe into the Mazzas began in August 2004, says Christian Caamano, an investigator for the Investigative Police of Chile. The tip-off was a Peruvian passenger on a flight from Colombia who arrived at the Santiago airport carrying a backpack stuffed with 600,000 euros, according to Mr. Caamano. Alarmed, Chilean authorities began monitoring such couriers and noticed that they dropped off their bags full of euros at the Mazzas’ exchange house.

Later, the Mazzas’ routine evolved: A courier from Colombia, allegedly carrying European proceeds, would deliver cash at the Santiago airport to an armored-car service. Personnel would count the money in a parked truck and turn it over to the Mazzas or one of their associates, says Hernan Penafiel, the lead prosecutor in a parallel case brought in Chile against the Mazzas. One of the Mazzas or their associates would then board a U.S.-bound flight with the money, Mr. Penafiel says.

Once on U.S. soil, according to authorities, the Mazzas allegedly moved their euros with breathtaking openness. Their main tactic was to dutifully fill out paperwork at customs points and financial institutions, using real family and business names, according to law enforcement officials and court documents from the U.S. case.

After the Mazzas or their associates cleared customs at Los Angeles International Airport, they would transfer their cash to Associated Foreign Exchange Banknotes Inc., a currency-exchange firm headquartered in Encino, Calif. AFEX Banknotes then converted the euros into dollars and wired the dollars to U.S. bank accounts the Mazzas had opened, according to law-enforcement officials and two AFEX Banknotes employees.

The Mazzas had accounts with at least three banks in the U.S., according to the court documents from the New York case: Israel Discount Bank of New York; Harris Bank in Chicago; and J.P. Morgan Chase in Dearborn, Mich. In opening each account, the Mazzas gave their company’s real name and openly described it as a tourism and currency-exchange agency.

The Mazzas proceeded to move huge sums of money through these accounts, according to the court documents, often after receiving faxed instructions, intercepted by Chilean authorities, from people or entities with suspected ties to Colombian traffickers.

In a single year, according to court documents, the Mazzas wired $133 million into the Harris Bank account and $117 million out. At their J.P. Morgan Chase account, they wired $35.5 million in and $34 million out in less than three months, and their IDB checking account recorded more than 2,500 transactions totaling more than $29 million during 2003 and 2005, according to the court documents.

Asked to comment, Harris Bank said in a written statement that it ”identified suspicious activity” after conducting its own investigation and ”closed the account in accordance with banking regulations.” IDB said in a statement that the events outlined in the New York case ”occurred under former management” and it no longer maintains accounts for unlicensed money transmitters, including the Mazzas’ casa de cambio. Chase declined to comment.

AFEX Banknotes compliance officer Andrew Scherer says his company is ”mortified” that it may have helped facilitate illegal activity, but added that it has strong anti-money-laundering policies and has taken ”substantive measures” to improve its anti-money-laundering policies in the wake of the Mazza case. He declined to be more specific, citing security concerns.

When Mr. Mazza-Alaluf landed at LAX on March 31, he didn’t attempt to conceal his money. Like he and his associates had done hundreds of times before, he filled out the standard declaration forms, a requirement for passengers entering the U.S. carrying more than $10,000 worth of currency. But this time, he was immediately arrested. The 55-year-old Chilean maintained his innocence.

Mr. Mazza-Alaluf has pleaded not guilty to federal felony charges of conspiracy and operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business. His attorney, Bernard Alan Seidler, calls the charges ”a classic case of the government overreaching.”

Chilean authorities nabbed members of the Mazza clan and their associates in a coordinated operation. They are now in jail in Santiago, facing money-laundering charges. Their lawyer, Yieninson Yapur, says they are all innocent. In an email sent via Mr. Yapur, Mr. Mazza-Olmos said he is a legitimate businessman and has done nothing illegal.

The U.S. investigation of the Mazza case was conducted by a multi-agency task force based in New York and led by the DEA and the Internal Revenue Service. Officials tout it as an important success. But it’s unlikely to significantly restrict the flow of narco-euros gushing out of Europe.

On a recent afternoon, far from the glitz of the night life on Gran Via, a homeless addict walked around in a northern Madrid shantytown with a syringe hanging out of his forearm.

Even as police tore down the surrounding shacks to make way for a new development, residents hammered away, rebuilding their wood and cardboard houses. ”The demand for cocaine is huge, so knocking these shacks down does nothing,” says Gema Bautista, a social worker with Fundacion Atenea Grupo GID, which runs a mobile clinic and needle-exchange program. ”The shacks just pop up again.”