Robert Mazur, the U.S. Customs special agent who led one of the most successful undercover operations in U.S. law enforcement history, gave us some insight into international money laundering and said the Federal Reserve needs to do more to help.
In the 1980s Mazur spent five years infiltrating the highest circles of Colombia’s drug cartels as a money launderer, transforming more than $34 million in cocaine cash into traceable, paper-trailed bank transactions under the pseudonym Bob L. Musella.
His book, The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, explains how “Operation C-Chase” led to the indictment of 85 individuals – including several officials affiliated with the then-seventh largest privately-held bank in the world, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI)—and the conviction of General Manuel Noriega.
Now he is on a mission to “share information with the public about how this money laundering activity has engulfed the will of the financial institutions of the world.”
Mazur says that “the international community is today doing the same thing that BCCI and their officers were doing 20 years ago”—citing the HSBC money-laundering scandal and the tax havens of the super-rich—and told BI that the problem is much larger than the estimated $2.1 trillion that crime generates each year.
“What [the corrupt bankers at BCCI] did was market flight capital, and they identified it as basically money seeking secrecy from governments,” Mazur said. “Yes it does include the items that the $2.1 trillion identifies but it’s bigger than that because there are times that you take legal money and use it for an illegal purpose, and that money is as big if not bigger than the illegal money.”
He calls the practice “a major moneymaker for the banking world” and cites the Standard Chartered scandal, in which bankers “took $250 billion worth of basically legal money and used techniques to hide from governments the fact that the money was being moved in these otherwise-legal transactions on the behalf of sanctioned nations, including Iran.”
He said the HSBC ruling listed six or seven methods “traditionally used by banks in a big way facilitate relationships with people who want to hide money from governments” and explained that bankers provide these services “to entice these people to bank with them” so that the bank is able to increase their deposits.
Mazur said that banking regulators are “not as focused on the issue of criminal conduct as they are on … making sure that the institution itself stays healthy” so investigations take years and result in a lengthy report.
“There’s nothing built in the system to engage criminal investigations up front,” Mazur said.” They always come in a very rusty state after they’ve been played with by the regulators. By then everyone’s built in their plausible deniability and it’s a very difficult task to expect the investigators to then come up with the intent evidence,” which is essential for criminal prosecution.
He added that the current regulatory process ignores the fundamental problem, which is that “there are two brains in a bank—there’s this profit brain that’s motivated by earning money … and then we have a compliance department and their whole agenda has nothing to do with profit, it has to do with identifying risk and minimizing it. But when the compliance and the sales brain meet, upper management sides with sales because that’s their gig too—profits. And there has to be a way to try to begin to change that chemistry of the interaction of the two brains.”
One straightforward ways to do that, according to Mazur, would be to crack down on bankers who solicit shady business—like the ones at HSBC—by putting a few “behind bars for a very long period of time” instead of just giving them a fine.
Another simple way is to require the Federal Reserve to share information about member banks who are in the bulk bank note business. If regulators and prosecutors knew which institutions were moving much larger amounts of money through wire transfers (which the Fed tracks), they would know where to focus investigations or covert-type operations.
“You’re honing down all your information to go after, proactively, the institutions most involved in moving this type of money,” Mazur said. “It’s not complicated but the Federal Reserve doesn’t give that information out freely and that’s something that needs to change.”
He noted that concerned individuals in the military, law enforcement and intelligence community have accessed more of that information in the last 2 years than ever before, but emphasized that more has to be done.
“That’s one of the barriers that’s slowly crumbling, and it’s an important barrier to wind up crumbling, but it’s not completely accessed,” Mazur said.