How a big US bank laundered billions from Mexico’s murderous drug gangs

As the violence spread, billions of dollars of cartel cash began to seep into the global financial system. But a special investigation by the Observer reveals how the increasingly frantic warnings of one London whistleblower were ignored

Mexico drugs

A soldier guards marijuana that is being incinerated in Tijuana, Mexico. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AP

On 10 April 2006, a DC-9 jet landed in the port city of Ciudad del Carmen, on the Gulf of Mexico, as the sun was setting. Mexican soldiers, waiting to intercept it, found 128 cases packed with 5.7 tons of cocaine, valued at $100m. But something else – more important and far-reaching – was discovered in the paper trail behind the purchase of the plane by the Sinaloa narco-trafficking cartel.

During a 22-month investigation by agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and others, it emerged that the cocaine smugglers had bought the plane with money they had laundered through one of the biggest banks in the United States: Wachovia, now part of the giant Wells Fargo.

The authorities uncovered billions of dollars in wire transfers, traveller’s cheques and cash shipments through Mexican exchanges into Wachovia accounts. Wachovia was put under immediate investigation for failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering programme. Of special significance was that the period concerned began in 2004, which coincided with the first escalation of violence along the US-Mexico border that ignited the current drugs war.

Criminal proceedings were brought against Wachovia, though not against any individual, but the case never came to court. In March 2010, Wachovia settled the biggest action brought under the US bank secrecy act, through the US district court in Miami. Now that the year’s “deferred prosecution” has expired, the bank is in effect in the clear. It paid federal authorities $110m in forfeiture, for allowing transactions later proved to be connected to drug smuggling, and incurred a $50m fine for failing to monitor cash used to ship 22 tons of cocaine.

More shocking, and more important, the bank was sanctioned for failing to apply the proper anti-laundering strictures to the transfer of $378.4bn – a sum equivalent to one-third of Mexico’s gross national product – into dollar accounts from so-called casas de cambio (CDCs) in Mexico, currency exchange houses with which the bank did business.

“Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations,” said Jeffrey Sloman, the federal prosecutor. Yet the total fine was less than 2% of the bank’s $12.3bn profit for 2009. On 24 March 2010, Wells Fargo stock traded at $30.86 – up 1% on the week of the court settlement.

The conclusion to the case was only the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating the role of the “legal” banking sector in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars – the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other places in the world – around their global operations, now bailed out by the taxpayer.

At the height of the 2008 banking crisis, Antonio Maria Costa, then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime, said he had evidence to suggest the proceeds from drugs and crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to banks on the brink of collapse. “Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade,” he said. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”

Wachovia was acquired by Wells Fargo during the 2008 crash, just as Wells Fargo became a beneficiary of $25bn in taxpayers’ money. Wachovia’s prosecutors were clear, however, that there was no suggestion Wells Fargo had behaved improperly; it had co-operated fully with the investigation. Mexico is the US’s third largest international trading partner and Wachovia was understandably interested in this volume of legitimate trade.

José Luis Marmolejo, who prosecuted those running one of the casas de cambio at the Mexican end, said: “Wachovia handled all the transfers. They never reported any as suspicious.”

“As early as 2004, Wachovia understood the risk,” the bank admitted in the statement of settlement with the federal government, but, “despite these warnings, Wachovia remained in the business”. There is, of course, the legitimate use of CDCs as a way into the Hispanic market. In 2005 the World Bank said that Mexico was receiving $8.1bn in remittances.

During research into the Wachovia Mexican case, the Observer obtained documents previously provided to financial regulators. It emerged that the alarm that was ignored came from, among other places, London, as a result of the diligence of one of the most important whistleblowers of our time. A man who, in a series of interviews with the Observer, adds detail to the documents, laying bare the story of how Wachovia was at the centre of one of the world’s biggest money-laundering operations.

Martin Woods, a Liverpudlian in his mid-40s, joined the London office of Wachovia Bank in February 2005 as a senior anti-money laundering officer. He had previously served with the Metropolitan police drug squad. As a detective he joined the money-laundering investigation team of the National Crime Squad, where he worked on the British end of the Bank of New York money-laundering scandal in the late 1990s.

Woods talks like a police officer – in the best sense of the word: punctilious, exact, with a roguish humour, but moral at the core. He was an ideal appointment for any bank eager to operate a diligent and effective risk management policy against the lucrative scourge of high finance: laundering, knowing or otherwise, the vast proceeds of criminality, tax-evasion, and dealing in arms and drugs.

Woods had a police officer’s eye and a police officer’s instincts – not those of a banker. And this influenced not only his methods, but his mentality. “I think that a lot of things matter more than money – and that marks you out in a culture which appears to prevail in many of the banks in the world,” he says.

Woods was set apart by his modus operandi. His speciality, he explains, was his application of a “know your client”, or KYC, policing strategy to identifying dirty money. “KYC is a fundamental approach to anti-money laundering, going after tax evasion or counter-terrorist financing. Who are your clients? Is the documentation right? Good, responsible banking involved always knowing your customer and it still does.”

When he looked at Wachovia, the first thing Woods noticed was a deficiency in KYC information. And among his first reports to his superiors at the bank’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, were observations on a shortfall in KYC at Wachovia’s operation in London, which he set about correcting, while at the same time implementing what was known as an enhanced transaction monitoring programme, gathering more information on clients whose money came through the bank’s offices in the City, in sterling or euros. By August 2006, Woods had identified a number of suspicious transactions relating to casas de cambio customers in Mexico.

Primarily, these involved deposits of traveller’s cheques in euros. They had sequential numbers and deposited larger amounts of money than any innocent travelling person would need, with inadequate or no KYC information on them and what seemed to a trained eye to be dubious signatures. “It was basic work,” he says. “They didn’t answer the obvious questions: ‘Is the transaction real, or does it look synthetic? Does the traveller’s cheque meet the protocols? Is it all there, and if not, why not?'”

Woods discussed the matter with Wachovia’s global head of anti-money laundering for correspondent banking, who believed the cheques could signify tax evasion. He then undertook what banks call a “look back” at previous transactions and saw fit to submit a series of SARs, or suspicious activity reports, to the authorities in the UK and his superiors in Charlotte, urging the blocking of named parties and large series of sequentially numbered traveller’s cheques from Mexico. He issued a number of SARs in 2006, of which 50 related to the casas de cambio in Mexico. To his amazement, the response from Wachovia’s Miami office, the centre for Latin American business, was anything but supportive – he felt it was quite the reverse.

As it turned out, however, Woods was on the right track. Wachovia’s business in Mexico was coming under closer and closer scrutiny by US federal law enforcement. Wachovia was issued with a number of subpoenas for information on its Mexican operation. Woods has subsequently been informed that Wachovia had six or seven thousand subpoenas. He says this was “An absurd number. So at what point does someone at the highest level not get the feeling that something is very, very wrong?”

In April and May 2007, Wachovia – as a result of increasing interest and pressure from the US attorney’s office – began to close its relationship with some of the casas de cambio. But rather than launch an internal investigation into Woods’s alerts over Mexico, Woods claims Wachovia hung its own money-laundering expert out to dry. The records show that during 2007 Woods “continued to submit more SARs related to the casas de cambio“.

In July 2007, all of Wachovia’s remaining 10 Mexican casa de cambio clients operating through London suddenly stopped doing so. Later in 2007, after the investigation of Wachovia was reported in the US financial media, the bank decided to end its remaining relationships with the Mexican casas de cambio globally. By this time, Woods says, he found his personal situation within the bank untenable; while the bank acted on one level to protect itself from the federal investigation into its shortcomings, on another, it rounded on the man who had been among the first to spot them.

On 16 June Woods was told by Wachovia’s head of compliance that his latest SAR need not have been filed, that he had no legal requirement to investigate an overseas case and no right of access to documents held overseas from Britain, even if they were held by Wachovia.

Woods’s life went into freefall. He went to hospital with a prolapsed disc, reported sick and was told by the bank that he not done so in the appropriate manner, as directed by the employees’ handbook. He was off work for three weeks, returning in August 2007 to find a letter from the bank’s compliance managing director, which was unrelenting in its tone and words of warning.

The letter addressed itself to what the manager called “specific examples of your failure to perform at an acceptable standard”. Woods, on the edge of a breakdown, was put on sick leave by his GP; he was later given psychiatric treatment, enrolled on a stress management course and put on medication.

Late in 2007, Woods attended a function at Scotland Yard where colleagues from the US were being entertained. There, he sought out a representative of the Drug Enforcement Administration and told him about the casas de cambio, the SARs and his employer’s reaction. The Federal Reserve and officials of the office of comptroller of currency in Washington DC then “spent a lot of time examining the SARs” that had been sent by Woods to Charlotte from London.

“They got back in touch with me a while afterwards and we began to put the pieces of the jigsaw together,” says Woods. What they found was – as Costa says – the tip of the iceberg of what was happening to drug money in the banking industry, but at least it was visible and it had a name: Wachovia.

In June 2005, the DEA, the criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service and the US attorney’s office in southern Florida began investigating wire transfers from Mexico to the US. They were traced back to correspondent bank accounts held by casas de cambio at Wachovia. The CDC accounts were supervised and managed by a business unit of Wachovia in the bank’s Miami offices.

“Through CDCs,” said the court document, “persons in Mexico can use hard currency and … wire transfer the value of that currency to US bank accounts to purchase items in the United States or other countries. The nature of the CDC business allows money launderers the opportunity to move drug dollars that are in Mexico into CDCs and ultimately into the US banking system.

“On numerous occasions,” say the court papers, “monies were deposited into a CDC by a drug-trafficking organisation. Using false identities, the CDC then wired that money through its Wachovia correspondent bank accounts for the purchase of airplanes for drug-trafficking organisations.” The court settlement of 2010 would detail that “nearly $13m went through correspondent bank accounts at Wachovia for the purchase of aircraft to be used in the illegal narcotics trade. From these aircraft, more than 20,000kg of cocaine were seized.”

All this occurred despite the fact that Wachovia’s office was in Miami, designated by the US government as a “high-intensity money laundering and related financial crime area”, and a “high-intensity drug trafficking area”. Since the drug cartel war began in 2005, Mexico had been designated a high-risk source of money laundering.

“As early as 2004,” the court settlement would read, “Wachovia understood the risk that was associated with doing business with the Mexican CDCs. Wachovia was aware of the general industry warnings. As early as July 2005, Wachovia was aware that other large US banks were exiting the CDC business based on [anti-money laundering] concerns … despite these warnings, Wachovia remained in business.”

On 16 March 2010, Douglas Edwards, senior vice-president of Wachovia Bank, put his signature to page 10 of a 25-page settlement, in which the bank admitted its role as outlined by the prosecutors. On page 11, he signed again, as senior vice-president of Wells Fargo. The documents show Wachovia providing three services to 22 CDCs in Mexico: wire transfers, a “bulk cash service” and a “pouch deposit service”, to accept “deposit items drawn on US banks, eg cheques and traveller’s cheques”, as spotted by Woods.

“For the time period of 1 May 2004 through 31 May 2007, Wachovia processed at least $$373.6bn in CDCs, $4.7bn in bulk cash” – a total of more than $378.3bn, a sum that dwarfs the budgets debated by US state and UK local authorities to provide services to citizens.

The document gives a fascinating insight into how the laundering of drug money works. It details how investigators “found readily identifiable evidence of red flags of large-scale money laundering”. There were “structured wire transfers” whereby “it was commonplace in the CDC accounts for round-number wire transfers to be made on the same day or in close succession, by the same wire senders, for the … same account”.

Over two days, 10 wire transfers by four individuals “went though Wachovia for deposit into an aircraft broker’s account. All of the transfers were in round numbers. None of the individuals of business that wired money had any connection to the aircraft or the entity that allegedly owned the aircraft. The investigation has further revealed that the identities of the individuals who sent the money were false and that the business was a shell entity. That plane was subsequently seized with approximately 2,000kg of cocaine on board.”

Many of the sequentially numbered traveller’s cheques, of the kind dealt with by Woods, contained “unusual markings” or “lacked any legible signature”. Also, “many of the CDCs that used Wachovia’s bulk cash service sent significantly more cash to Wachovia than what Wachovia had expected. More specifically, many of the CDCs exceeded their monthly activity by at least 50%.”

Recognising these “red flags”, the US attorney’s office in Miami, the IRS and the DEA began investigating Wachovia, later joined by FinCEN, one of the US Treasury’s agencies to fight money laundering, while the office of the comptroller of the currency carried out a parallel investigation. The violations they found were, says the document, “serious and systemic and allowed certain Wachovia customers to launder millions of dollars of proceeds from the sale of illegal narcotics through Wachovia accounts over an extended time period. The investigation has identified that at least $110m in drug proceeds were funnelled through the CDC accounts held at Wachovia.”

The settlement concludes by discussing Wachovia’s “considerable co-operation and remedial actions” since the prosecution was initiated, after the bank was bought by Wells Fargo. “In consideration of Wachovia’s remedial actions,” concludes the prosecutor, “the United States shall recommend to the court … that prosecution of Wachovia on the information filed … be deferred for a period of 12 months.”

But while the federal prosecution proceeded, Woods had remained out in the cold. On Christmas Eve 2008, his lawyers filed tribunal proceedings against Wachovia for bullying and detrimental treatment of a whistleblower. The case was settled in May 2009, by which time Woods felt as though he was “the most toxic person in the bank”. Wachovia agreed to pay an undisclosed amount, in return for which Woods left the bank and said he would not make public the terms of the settlement.

After years of tribulation, Woods was finally formally vindicated, though not by Wachovia: a letter arrived from John Dugan, the comptroller of the currency in Washington DC, dated 19 March 2010 – three days after the settlement in Miami. Dugan said he was “writing to personally recognise and express my appreciation for the role you played in the actions brought against Wachovia Bank for violations of the bank secrecy act … Not only did the information that you provided facilitate our investigation, but you demonstrated great personal courage and integrity by speaking up. Without the efforts of individuals like you, actions such as the one taken against Wachovia would not be possible.”

The so-called “deferred prosecution” detailed in the Miami document is a form of probation whereby if the bank abides by the law for a year, charges are dropped. So this March the bank was in the clear. The week that the deferred prosecution expired, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo said the parent bank had no comment to make on the documentation pertaining to Woods’s case, or his allegations. She added that there was no comment on Sloman’s remarks to the court; a provision in the settlement stipulated Wachovia was not allowed to issue public statements that contradicted it.

But the settlement leaves a sour taste in many mouths – and certainly in Woods’s. The deferred prosecution is part of this “cop-out all round”, he says. “The regulatory authorities do not have to spend any more time on it, and they don’t have to push it as far as a criminal trial. They just issue criminal proceedings, and settle. The law enforcement people do what they are supposed to do, but what’s the point? All those people dealing with all that money from drug-trafficking and murder, and no one goes to jail?”

One of the foremost figures in the training of anti-money laundering officers is Robert Mazur, lead infiltrator for US law enforcement of the Colombian Medellín cartel during the epic prosecution and collapse of the BCCI banking business in 1991 (his story was made famous by his memoir, The Infiltrator, which became a movie).

Mazur, whose firm Chase and Associates works closely with law enforcement agencies and trains officers for bank anti-money laundering, cast a keen eye over the case against Wachovia, and he says now that “the only thing that will make the banks properly vigilant to what is happening is when they hear the rattle of handcuffs in the boardroom”.

Mazur said that “a lot of the law enforcement people were disappointed to see a settlement” between the administration and Wachovia. “But I know there were external circumstances that worked to Wachovia’s benefit, not least that the US banking system was on the edge of collapse.”

What concerns Mazur is that what law enforcement agencies and politicians hope to achieve against the cartels is limited, and falls short of the obvious attack the US could make in its war on drugs: go after the money. “We’re thinking way too small,” Mazur says. “I train law enforcement officers, thousands of them every year, and they say to me that if they tried to do half of what I did, they’d be arrested. But I tell them: ‘You got to think big. The headlines you will be reading in seven years’ time will be the result of the work you begin now.’ With BCCI, we had to spend two years setting it up, two years doing undercover work, and another two years getting it to trial. If they want to do something big, like go after the money, that’s how long it takes.”

But Mazur warns: “If you look at the career ladders of law enforcement, there’s no incentive to go after the big money. People move every two to three years. The DEA is focused on drug trafficking rather than money laundering. You get a quicker result that way – they want to get the traffickers and seize their assets. But this is like treating a sick plant by cutting off a few branches – it just grows new ones. Going after the big money is cutting down the plant – it’s a harder door to knock on, it’s a longer haul, and it won’t get you the short-term riches.”

The office of the comptroller of the currency is still examining whether individuals in Wachovia are criminally liable. Sources at FinCEN say that a so-called “look-back” is in process, as directed by the settlement and agreed to by Wachovia, into the $378.4bn that was not directly associated with the aircraft purchases and cocaine hauls, but neither was it subject to the proper anti-laundering checks. A FinCEN source says that $20bn already examined appears to have “suspicious origins”. But this is just the beginning.

Antonio Maria Costa, who was executive director of the UN’s office on drugs and crime from May 2002 to August 2010, charts the history of the contamination of the global banking industry by drug and criminal money since his first initiatives to try to curb it from the European commission during the 1990s. “The connection between organised crime and financial institutions started in the late 1970s, early 1980s,” he says, “when the mafia became globalised.”

Until then, criminal money had circulated largely in cash, with the authorities making the occasional, spectacular “sting” or haul. During Costa’s time as director for economics and finance at the EC in Brussels, from 1987, inroads were made against penetration of banks by criminal laundering, and “criminal money started moving back to cash, out of the financial institutions and banks. Then two things happened: the financial crisis in Russia, after the emergence of the Russian mafia, and the crises of 2003 and 2007-08.

“With these crises,” says Costa, “the banking sector was short of liquidity, the banks exposed themselves to the criminal syndicates, who had cash in hand.”

Costa questions the readiness of governments and their regulatory structures to challenge this large-scale corruption of the global economy: “Government regulators showed what they were capable of when the issue suddenly changed to laundering money for terrorism – on that, they suddenly became serious and changed their attitude.”

Hardly surprising, then, that Wachovia does not appear to be the end of the line. In August 2010, it emerged in quarterly disclosures by HSBC that the US justice department was seeking to fine it for anti-money laundering compliance problems reported to include dealings with Mexico.

“Wachovia had my résumé, they knew who I was,” says Woods. “But they did not want to know – their attitude was, ‘Why are you doing this?’ They should have been on my side, because they were compliance people, not commercial people. But really they were commercial people all along. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. This is the biggest money-laundering scandal of our time.

“These are the proceeds of murder and misery in Mexico, and of drugs sold around the world,” he says. “All the law enforcement people wanted to see this come to trial. But no one goes to jail. “What does the settlement do to fight the cartels? Nothing – it doesn’t make the job of law enforcement easier and it encourages the cartels and anyone who wants to make money by laundering their blood dollars. Where’s the risk? There is none.

“Is it in the interest of the American people to encourage both the drug cartels and the banks in this way? Is it in the interest of the Mexican people? It’s simple: if you don’t see the correlation between the money laundering by banks and the 30,000 people killed in Mexico, you’re missing the point.”

Woods feels unable to rest on his laurels. He tours the world for a consultancy he now runs, Hermes Forensic Solutions, counselling and speaking to banks on the dangers of laundering criminal money, and how to spot and stop it. “New York and London,” says Woods, “have become the world’s two biggest laundries of criminal and drug money, and offshore tax havens. Not the Cayman Islands, not the Isle of Man or Jersey. The big laundering is right through the City of London and Wall Street.

“After the Wachovia case, no one in the regulatory community has sat down with me and asked, ‘What happened?’ or ‘What can we do to avoid this happening to other banks?’ They are not interested. They are the same people who attack the whistleblowers and this is a position the [British] Financial Services Authority at least has adopted on legal advice: it has been advised that the confidentiality of banking and bankers takes primacy over the public information disclosure act. That is how the priorities work: secrecy first, public interest second.

“Meanwhile, the drug industry has two products: money and suffering. On one hand, you have massive profits and enrichment. On the other, you have massive suffering, misery and death. You cannot separate one from the other.

“What happened at Wachovia was symptomatic of the failure of the entire regulatory system to apply the kind of proper governance and adequate risk management which would have prevented not just the laundering of blood money, but the global crisis.”


Exclusive: British Novelist John le Carré on the Iraq War, Corporate Power, the Exploitation of Africa and His New Novel, “Our Kind of Traitor”


Today, we spend the hour, in a national broadcast exclusive, with world-renowned British novelist John le Carré, the pen name of David Cornwell. Le Carré’s writing career spans half a century, during which he has established himself as a master spy writer. His latest novel, his twenty-second, is out this week, entitled Our Kind of Traitor. David Cornwell worked in the British Secret Services from the late 1950s until the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became an international bestseller. As the Cold War ended, le Carré continued to write prolifically, shifting focus to the inequities of globalization, unchecked multinational corporate power, and the role national spy services play in protecting corporate interests. “The things that are done in the name of the shareholder are, to me, as terrifying as the things that are done—dare I say it—in the name of God,” le Carré tellsDemocracy Now! Perhaps best known among his many post-Cold War novels is The Constant Gardener, depicting a pharmaceutical company’s exploitation of unwitting Kenyans for dangerous, sometimes fatal, drug tests. In this rare US interview, le Carré also discusses Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq war, US policy toward Iran, and international money laundering. [includes rush transcript]

Wall Street lava dinero del narcotráfico impunemente

Traducido del inglés para Rebelión por Germán Leyens

‘Demasiado grande para caer’ es un problema mucho mayor de lo que piensas. Todos hemos leído informes condenatorios sobre que el Gobierno salva a los bancos de sus apuestas de alto riesgo, pero resulta que el problema del privilegio de Wall Street está arraigado mucho más profundamente en el sistema legal de EE.UU. de lo que los simples rescates atestiguaron en 2008. Los mayores bancos de EE.UU. pueden involucrarse en actividades descaradamente criminales a escala masiva y emerger casi completamente indemnes. El último ejemplo repugnante proviene del Banco Wachovia: Acusado de lavar 380.000 millones de dólares de dineros de cárteles de la droga mexicanos, se espera que el gigante financiero emerja con sólo un tirón de orejas gracias a una política oficial del Gobierno, que protege a los megabancos contra acusaciones criminales.

Michael Smith de Bloomberg ha escrito una devastadora revelación que detalla las operaciones del Wachovia con dinero de la droga y la torcida reacción del Gobierno. El banco hacía transacciones con dinero que provenía literalmente de toneladas de cocaína de violentos cárteles de la droga. No fue por accidente. Denunciantes internos del Wachovia advirtieron de que el banco estaba lavando dinero del narcotráfico, los mandamases del banco los ignoraron totalmente para lograr mayores beneficios y el Gobierno de EE.UU. está a punto de dejar que todos los involucrados queden impunes. El banco no será acusado, porque es política oficial del Gobierno no procesar a megabancos. Del artículo de Smith:

Ningún gran banco estadounidense… ha sido acusado alguna vez por violar la Ley de Secretos Bancarios o cualquiera otra ley federal. En vez de eso, el Departamento de Justicia resuelve acusaciones criminales utilizando acuerdos de suspensión de actuaciones judiciales, según los cuales un banco paga una multa y promete no volver a violar la ley… Los grandes bancos están protegidos de los enjuiciamientos gracias a una variante de la teoría de demasiado-grande-para-caer. Encausar a un gran banco podría provocar una carrera frenética de los inversionistas para vender acciones y causar pánico en los mercados financieros.

Wachovia fue adquirido por Wells Fargo a finales de 2008. El castigo al banco por lavar más de 380.000 millones de dólares en dinero de la droga consistirá en una promesa de no volver a hacerlo y una multa de 160 millones de dólares. La multa es tan pequeña que es casi seguro que Wachovia obtendrá beneficios de su negocio de financiamiento de la droga después de considerar costes legales y multas.

Las autoridades internacionales conocen la conexión entre banqueros y narcotraficantes mucho más allá de Wachovia, pero los gobiernos no hacen nada al respecto. Un informe de 2009 de la Oficina de las Naciones Unidas sobre la Droga y el Crimen estableció que la mayoría de las reglas para impedir el lavado de dinero de la droga a través de los bancos se violan.

Del informe:

“En tiempos de quiebras de grandes bancos, los bancos parecen pensar que el dinero no huele. Ciudadanos honestos que enfrentan dificultades en tiempos de penurias financieras, se preguntan por qué los ingresos del crimen –convertidos en ostentosos inmuebles, coches, botes y aviones– no se confiscan”.

A finales de 2009, el jefe de esa oficina de la ONU, Antonio María Costa, dijo a la prensa que muchos préstamos entre bancos –préstamos a corto plazo que los bancos hacen entre sí– se apoyaban en dinero de la droga. Cuando los mercados financieros se paralizaron en 2007 y 2008, los bancos se volvieron hacia los cárteles de la droga para obtener dinero. Es posible que muchos bancos importantes no hubieran sobrevivido sin ese dinero de la droga.


Guatemala: la dimisión del juez Castresana evidencia el vínculo de la Justicia con el narcotráfico

El nombramiento de un fiscal general sospechoso de relaciones con el narcotráfico es sólo una muestra de la impunidad que gozan las fuerzas del orden y el crimen organizado en Guatemala, en connivencia con la Justicia y los poderes del Estado.

- Entrevista a Maya Alvarado, de la Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas
- Almílcar Méndez, defensor de derechos humanos: “Nuestro país se muere a causa de la violencia”

Jueves 24 de junio de 2010.  Número 129

El 7 de junio el magistrado español Carlos Castresana dimitía como director de la Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (Cicig) por el “incumplimiento” del Estado guatemalteco en su compromiso de combatir la impunidad. Por su parte, los organismos de derechos humanos, tanto guatemaltecos como internacionales, han vuelto a señalar al Gobierno y al poder judicial de Guatemala por su complicidad con el crimen organizado, el narcotráfico y las violaciones de los derechos humanos por parte de la policía y el ejército. Castresana, en la dirección de la Cicig desde 2007, denunció en rueda de prensa que grupos organizados del país se han dedicado a destruir su imagen pública, así como a “entorpecer” el trabajo de la comisión en su lucha contra la impunidad.

El magistrado también demandó al presidente Álvaro Colom que destituya al recién nombrado fiscal general Conrado Reyes, a quien ha acusado de presuntos vínculos con el crimen organizado. Tras días de fuertes presiones internas e internacionales, la Corte de Constitucionalidad de Guatemala decidió el 11 de junio revocar el nombramiento del polémico magistrado. La medida se ha debido, según el presidente de la Corte, Roberto Molina Barreto, al “descrédito del actual jefe del Ministerio Público” y tiene como objetivo “mantener el Estado de Derecho” y “recobrar la institucionalidad del país”.

La historia de cómo llegó a ocupar el cargo de fiscal general de Guatemala un magistrado que “tiene un récord de corrupción en su historia personal, y en el escasísimo tiempo que ha estado al frente de la institución ha demostrado compromisos con organizaciones ilícitas”, en palabras de Castresana, no es nueva en el país. Según el anterior fiscal general, Amílcar Velásquez Zárate, el 75% de los casos terminan sin resolverse. Para Castresana, el porcentaje de crímenes impunes se sitúa entre el 95% y el 98%. Una impunidad especialmente flagrante en los crímenes contra activistas sociales –como los ocho opositores a Unión Fenosa asesinados desde octubre de 2009–, de activistas de derechos humanos y de mujeres. Desde que entró en vigor la Ley contra el Feminicidio, en mayo de 2008, sólo dos personas han sido condenadas, a pesar de que en ese mismo año murieron por causas violentas 722 mujeres.

Justicia francesa condenó al dictador Noriega
Un tribunal de París sentenció a siete años de prisión al presidente de facto de Panamá, Manuel Antonio Noriega, entre 1983 y 1989. Además, se ordenó el embargo de las cuentas que posee el dictador en el país galo.
Este miércoles la Sala XI del Tribunal Correccional de París emitió un fallo contra Noriega, de 76 años, por lavado de dinero proveniente del narcotráfico.

La sanción impone el embargo de las cuentas que el dictador posee en Francia por 2 millones 300 mil euros. El tribunal le impuso un resarcimiento de un millón de euros para el Estado de Panamá.

La Fiscalía solicitó una condena de 10 años de prisión al considerar que “sus funciones como jefe de Gobierno le permitieron utilizar los medios del Estado panameño para su interés personal”.

En el mismo sentido, el fiscal Michel Maes consideró que Panamá era el punto intermedio en el envío de cocaína por parte del Cártel de Medellín a Estados Unidos (EEUU).

Noriega fue juzgado y sentenciado a 20 años de cárcel en EEUU por tráfico de drogas.

Fue extraditado el pasado 27 de abril para que sea juzgado por un tribunal francés.

En tanto, la cancillería panameña emitió un comunicado al conocer la sentencia donde indica que “el Gobierno Nacional mantiene su posición en Noriega debe cumplir las sentencias dictadas por las autoridades judiciales panameñas”.

Además, el texto explica que el dictador debe “enfrentar procesos pendientes en ese país, por lo que Panamá continuará impulsando la extradición”. (PÚLSAR)

(+) El dictador Rafael Videla reivindica la dictadura militar en Argentina
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(23/03/2010) Jueza notificó sentencia por crímenes contra los Derechos Humanos
(24/02/2010) Juez Baltazar Garzón pide interrogar a viuda de Pinochet

Guatemala: Jefes policiales capturados por nexos con el narcotráfico


El director de la Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) Baltazar Gómez, la jefa de la División de Análisis e Información Antinarcótica (DAIA), Nelly de Bonilla y Fernando Carrillo, de alta en la Portuaria Santo Tomás de Castilla, capturados por las fuerzas de seguridad, fueron sindicados de pertenecer a una estructura clandestinas ligada a un grupo de narcotraficantes.

El ministro de Gobernación, Carlos Menocal, el jefe de la Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), Carlos Castresana y el fiscal del Ministerio Público (MP), Amílcar Velásquez dijeron que las investigaciones establecieron que ambos formaban parte de la cúpula de un grupo clandestino que el 24 de abril pasado efectuaron un tumbe de 700 kilos de cocaína en un complejo de bodegas en el municipio de Amatitlán.
Según Carlos Castresana, las inconsistencias en las pesquisas del enfrentamiento con presuntos narcotraficantes, donde murieron cinco policías, hicieron surgir sospechas sobre la participación de los funcionarios policiales.
Agregó que una de las cuestiones inexplicables del enfrentamiento ocurrido en Amatitlán, fue el hecho de que elementos de la DAIA no permitieron a los fiscales y peritos el acceso al lugar donde fallecieron sus compañeros, argumentando razones de seguridad.

El ministro de Gobernación, Carlos Menocal, explicó que aunque era obvio que el director de la PNC debió ser separado del cargo junto con el ex ministro de Gobernación, por haber firmado el contrato de combustible por el caso Maskana, no se hizo para lograr la orden de detención que emitió finalmente el juzgado de Amatitlán; los tres funcionarios esperaban ser interrogados en los tribunales.

Operation Enduring Freedom: A Retrospective

It has become a given, even among many progressive critics of Bush administration policy, that while the U.S. war on Iraq was illegal, immoral, unnecessary, poorly executed, and contrary to America’s national security interests, the war on Afghanistan—which was launched five years ago last week—was a legal, moral, and a necessary response to protect American national security in the aftermath of 9/11. Virtually every member of Congress who has gone on record opposing the Iraq War supported the Afghanistan War. Similarly, a number of soldiers who have resisted serving in Iraq on moral grounds have expressed their willingness to serve in Afghanistan.

Relatively speaking, the war in Afghanistan has not been nearly as much the unambiguous tragedy as the U.S. war on Iraq. Only the most committed pacifists or the most extreme among the ideological critics of U.S. intervention would have ruled out the possibility of at least some use of force against al-Qaida following the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Were it not for the Iraq War, however, there would be a lot more debate and serious questions regarding U.S. policy in Afghanistan. On the fifth anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom, the large-scale civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. forces, the torture and abuse of detainees, the ongoing suffering and violence in that country, and the resurgence of the dreaded Taliban all demand a significant rethinking of the war.

Non-Military Options

The first question is whether al-Qaida’s operational base in Afghanistan could have been destroyed and Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders could have been brought to justice without the use of military force. Was a war of this magnitude really necessary?

The Bush administration insisted that it launched its war against Afghanistan only after the Taliban regime had refused to accept non-military means of resolving the conflict such as handing over bin Laden. Unfortunately, the absence of an International Criminal Court at that time, delayed in large part by U.S. objections, made it impossible for the Taliban to find a face-saving means of bringing bin Laden to justice without giving him to a hostile foreign government. Furthermore, the United States refused Taliban requests for evidence that bin Laden was connected with the terrorist attacks, even though such evidence presumably existed at the time and sharing such evidence is normally expected before complying with an extradition request.

In addition, Pakistani and British newspapers reported that in late September and early October, leaders of Pakistan’s two Islamic-identified parties negotiated a deal that could have avoided war. According to these reports, the Taliban was apparently willing to extradite bin Laden to Pakistan to face an international tribunal that would then decide whether to try him there or hand him over to the United States. However, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain pressured Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, to kill the deal. An American official was later quoted as saying that “casting our objective too narrowly” risked “a premature collapse of the international effort if by some luck chance Mr. bin Laden was captured.” In short, the Bush administration appeared to prefer going to war than bringing bin Laden to justice.

Other U.S. demands were even more difficult for the Taliban to accept: the Bush administration demanded the expulsion of all al-Qaida fighters, even though most had nothing to do with foreign terrorist operations but instead were brought in by bin Laden as a mercenary force that served as the backbone of the Taliban’s defense against the Northern Alliance. Similarly, the Taliban viewed the Bush administration’s additional demand of unfettered U.S. inspections throughout the country as an unreasonable encroachment of Afghan sovereignty.

The United States might have pursued another non-military option by taking advantage of the deep divisions within the Taliban and the restive political leaders in the southeastern part of the country. Such an exploitation of political differences might have also broken the impasse regarding al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan, which was causing great resentment even among some Taliban partisans. No attempts from the Bush administration were forthcoming, however.

It is very possible that such efforts would have failed anyway, requiring serious consideration of military options. This leads to the second question. Why did the United States focus on high-altitude bombing instead of precisely targeted small-unit commando operations, which would have presumably been a more appropriate tactic against a terrorist group like al-Qaida?

Military Failures

When the Taliban refused to give in to its demands, the United States—with support from Great Britain—began a major bombing campaign against Afghanistan on October 7, four weeks after the alleged al-Qaida attacks against the United States. Given the physical devastation of the preceding 20 years of conflict on one of the poorest countries in the world, the United States conducted war on what some strategic analysts called “not a target-rich environment.” General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that by the third day of the air strikes U.S. planes were returning with their ordnance since they could not find obvious targets. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld added, to the laughter of assembled journalists, “We’re not running out of targets. Afghanistan is.”

The U.S. military operation resulted in widespread civilian casualties. During the heaviest phases of the air strikes that fall, American bombs struck a Red Cross food convoy, a military hospital, a boys’ school, an old age home, several small villages, and residential neighborhoods. Twice, U.S. planes attacked a Red Cross food distribution center. Amnesty International demanded “an immediate and full investigation into what may have been violations of international and humanitarian law such as direct attacks on civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks” by the U.S. military. A study by Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that, by the end of the year, civilian deaths from the bombing ranged between 1,000 and 1,300. Another study, by Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire, estimated that the civilian deaths toll had risen to above 3,700. In addition, Conetta estimates conservatively that the U.S. air campaign created more than a half million additional refugees as well as an additional 3,200 civilian deaths from starvation, exposure, and related illness and injury sustained while trying to flee from the bombing. These civilian deaths are particularly tragic given that the Afghan people were the first and primary victims of the Taliban, perhaps the world’s most totalitarian regime during its five years of rule.

Since these estimates were first made at the end of 2001, the civilian death toll may have doubled. The number of civilian casualties—from both the bombing and the resulting refugee crisis—have far surpassed the numbers killed in the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and on the four hijacked airliners.

A case can certainly be made that there is a significant difference in moral culpability between terrorists who kill civilians on purpose and military personnel who kill civilians accidentally. However, most U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan have taken place when there was no serious enemy fire and when the Americans had plenty of time and technology to avoid such mistakes. Manslaughter may not be as bad as murder, but it is still a crime. The emphasis on high-altitude bombing was less a strategic necessity than an effort to avoid casualties among U.S. pilots. Such a trade-off is understandable when soldiers face enemy soldiers, but it is unethical and illegal when the result is a higher civilian death toll. The high rate of casualties among Afghan civilians seemed particularly questionable since none of the terrorists involved in the hijackings and none of their leaders were Afghans. The 9-11 plotters were outsiders who had taken advantage of Afghanistan’s political tragedy, which was rooted in foreign invasion over 20 years earlier. Similarly, Afghan citizens did not elect the Taliban and had no party in the decision to provide sanctuary for bin Laden and his followers.

Fighting Terrorists

A war against a foreign government involves clear, fixed targets such as command-and-control centers, intelligence headquarters, heavy equipment, major weapons stockpiles, large concentrations of troops, and major military complexes. A war against a terrorist group is not so straightforward. Due to the nature of attacks organized by small groups using clandestine methods, so-called “terrorist bases” generally contain no tangible assets that can be seriously crippled by military strikes. As a result, such air campaigns have a mixed success rate at best, particularly in poor rural countries that have few obvious targets to destroy or damage.

Furthermore, the Taliban regime’s provision of sanctuary to bin Laden and his supporters was not a typical case of state-backed terrorism. As a result of bin Laden’s personal fortune and al-Qaida’s elaborate international network, al-Qaida did not need and apparently did not receive direct financial or logistical support from the Afghan government. If anything, al-Qaida had more influence over the Taliban than the Taliban had over al-Qaida.

The further decentralization of al-Qaida operations resulting from the loss of its base in Afghanistan has made it even harder to track down and arrest or eliminate its operatives. Much of the terrorist network’s capability to launch terrorist attacks has always resided outside of that central Asian country. Carl Conneta predicted in early 2002—correctly, according to recent intelligence reports—that:

The capacity of Al-Qaida to repair its lost capabilities for global terrorism rests on the fact that terrorist attacks like the 11 September crashes do not depend on the possession of massive, open-air training facilities. Warehouses and small ad hoc sites will do. Moreover, large terrorist organizations have proved themselves able to operate for very long periods without state sanctuaries—as long as sympathetic communities exist … Thus, Al-Qaida may be able to recoup its lost capability by adopting a more thoroughly clandestine and “stateless” approach to its operations, including recruitment and training.

Indeed, the key figures in the 9/11 attacks lived in residential neighborhoods in Hamburg, Germany, not in the bombed-out “terrorist bases” in Afghanistan. Similarly, they received more training from flight schools in the United States than from military camps in Afghanistan. No countries outside the Taliban’s Afghanistan have formally granted sanctuary to the al-Qaida network, but these terrorists have still continued to operate.

Regardless of the nature of the Taliban government or its support for al-Qaida, the image of one of the richest nations in the world bombing one of the world’s poorest nations contributed to growing anti-American resentment, particularly in the Islamic world. The New York Times noted four weeks into the bombing campaign that “portraits of the United States as a lonely, self-absorbed bully taking out its rage on defenseless Afghanistan are on the rise.”

Much of this anti-Americanism could have been avoided had the United States found a means of avoiding military action in Afghanistan or if the military response had been limited to special operations and tactical air strikes. Indeed, the most urgent action related to the post-September 11 defense needs were related to al-Qaida cells outside of Afghanistan, which would be primarily the responsibility of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Even if an international consensus had developed to oust the Taliban regime, the United States and its allies should have taken the time to lay the political groundwork for a post-Taliban government and prepare post-war peacekeeping troops and development aid prior to the launch of military action.

Most American allies supported this strategy, but the Bush administration opposed it. As Conetta observed, “The lack of proper political preparation makes it harder to achieve military success and raises its cost.” Indeed, the Bush administration paid very little attention to the political future of Afghanistan. The Bush administration has “one part-time upper-middle-level figure working on the political side,” Afghan scholar Barnet Rubin noted soon after the launch of the war on Afghanistan in 2001, “and they’ve got all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff working on the military side.”

A Less Secure America

While many Americans celebrated the U.S. triumph over a few thousand Pashtun tribesmen in Afghanistan, getting involved in such a tribal war has not likely made the United States more secure. The United States has little to show for its efforts beyond the overthrow of the weak and impoverished Taliban regime. It was unable even to capture bin Laden. As one veteran British journalist noted, “There is no victory in Afghanistan’s tribal war, only the exchange of one group of killers for another.” Not long after the Taliban fell came widespread reports of massacres of prisoners by Northern Alliance forces, some of which may have had U.S. complicity. Referring to non-Afghan fighters in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld declared that “they will either be killed or taken prisoner,” highlighting U.S. ambivalence toward such atrocities.

The Bush administration’s lack of apparent concern over what would happen to Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban is at the root of the country’s deteriorating situation today. The United States, while continuing counter-insurgency operations in various parts of the country, refused to provide forces for the European-led UN peacekeeping operation dispatched to Afghanistan to operate beyond the capital of Kabul. In recent years, the United States has taken leadership in bombing a country but relied on the UN to provide the subsequent humanitarian relief and the Europeans to provide post-war security. The hesitancy in getting involved in peacekeeping operations does not extend to an unwillingness to engage in other military operations, however. The U.S. Air Force has engaged in air strikes against rival forces of the Afghan government that had no affiliation with al-Qaida or the Taliban, despite Congress not having authorized the use of military force beyond those responsible for the 9/11 attacks or those harboring them.

The initial U.S. victory over the Taliban regime was more difficult than some hoped but quicker than others feared. Unlike the Soviets, who faced as many as 100,000 Afghan resistance fighters armed with sophisticated American equipment, the Taliban were a small ragtag group of a few thousand tribesmen.

Ridding the world of perhaps the most oppressive and misogynist regime on the planet could be considered a worthwhile result whether or not it enhances the struggle against terrorism. However, questions remain as to whether the regime would have shortly collapsed from within as some had predicted; whether suddenly bringing to power opposition warlords has been worth the price in terms of Afghanistan’s ongoing violence, instability, reinvigorated opium trade, and other problems; and, whether the devastation from the U.S. assault will create a reaction that will lead to the rise of new extremists in the future. Also worthy of critical evaluation is whether the United States is culpable for creating the conditions that brought the Taliban to power in the first place.

While the serious negative legal, moral, and security implications of the U.S. war on Iraq remain in the forefront of debate today, similar concerns regarding the U.S. war on Afghanistan should not be ignored.

Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy In Focus Project. He is a professor of politics and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).

Recommended Citation:

Stephen Zunes, “Operation Enduring Freedom: A Retrospective” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, October 17, 2006)