A Torrent of Dirty Dollars

Money laundering is a runaway global industry that serves customers ranging from cocaine cartels to tax-dodging corporations

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In Willemstad, the sunny Caribbean capital of the Netherlands Antilles, a banker ushers an American visitor through a hotel casino and into a dining room overlooking the harbor. During refreshments, the prospective customer says he expects a six-figure cash windfall soon and would like to bring the money "quietly" into the U.S. At first the banker responds cautiously. "This money isn't, ah, tainted, is it?" When the American assures him it is not, the officer of the Curacao branch of the French-owned Credit Lyonnais Nederland smiles and orders another tonic water. In that case, says the banker, he can arrange a so-called Dutch sandwich.

Under this multilayered plan, the Paris bank would set up a corporation for the customer in Rotterdam, where he would deposit his cash in the bank's local branch. The American would control the newly created Dutch corporation through an Antilles trust company, but his identity as the owner would be protected by the island group's impenetrable secrecy laws. The Caribbean branch would then "lend" the American his own money held in Rotterdam.

If the American were questioned by the Internal Revenue Service or other authorities about the source of his wealth, he could point to his loan from a respected international bank. "Many of your largest corporations, many of your movie stars, do much the same thing here," says the banker. "We wouldn't want to handle criminal money, of course. But if it's just a matter of taxes, that is of no concern to us."

When U.S. drug agents tallied up the amount of cocaine they seized during fiscal 1989, their haul totaled 89 tons, or 44% more than last year's. The volume, which is believed to be only a small percentage of the tons flooding the country, is evidence of more than just a frighteningly effective drug- smuggling industry. The wholesale value of the coke, as much as $28 billion, is testimony to another kind of dark genius. This is the scandalous ability of the coke kingpins to launder billions of dollars in drug proceeds using many of the same financial services available to the FORTUNE 500. In a wash cycle that often takes less than 48 hours, the drug smugglers can turn coke-tinged $20 and $100 bills into such untraceable, squeaky-clean assets as money-market deposits, car dealerships and resort hotels.

The coke smugglers can accomplish this feat because they have plenty of help. They rely on a booming money-laundering industry that serves a clientele ranging from tax-avoiding corporations to the Iranscam schemers. The system depends on the collaboration, or often just the negligence, of bankers and other moneymen who can use electronic-funds networks and the secrecy laws of tax havens to shuffle assets with alacrity. The very institutions that could do the most to stop money laundering have the least incentive to do so. According to police and launderers, the basic fee for recycling money of dubious origin is 4%, while the rate for drug cash and other hot money is 7% to 10%.

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