Soldiers carry a table displaying stacks of seized U.S. dollars at a media… (Eduardo Verdugo, Associated…)
Reporting from Mexico City — Tainted drug money runs like whispered rumors all over Mexico's economy — in gleaming high-rises in beach resorts such as Cancun, in bustling casinos in Monterrey, in skyscrapers and restaurants in Mexico City that sit empty for months. It seeps into the construction sector, the night-life industry, even political campaigns.
Piles of greenbacks, enough to fill dump trucks, are transformed into gold watches, showrooms full of Hummers, aviation schools, yachts, thoroughbred horses and warehouses full of imported fabric.
Officials here say the tide of laundered money could reach as high as $50 billion, a staggering sum equal to about 3% of Mexico's legitimate economy, or more than all its oil exports or spending on prime social programs.
Mexican leaders often trumpet their deadly crackdown against drug traffickers as an all-out battle involving tens of thousands of troops and police, high-profile arrests and record-setting narcotics seizures. The 5-year-old offensive, however, has done little to attack a chief source of the cartels' might: their money.
Even President Felipe Calderon, who sent the army into the streets to chase traffickers after taking office in 2006, an offensive that has seen 43,000 people die since, concedes that Mexico has fallen short in attacking the financial strength of organized crime.
"Without question, we have been at fault," Calderon said during a meeting last month with drug-war victims. "The truth is that the existing structures for detecting money-laundering were simply overwhelmed by reality."
Experts say the unchecked flow of dirty money feeds a widening range of criminal activity as cartels branch into other enterprises, such as producing and trading in pirated merchandise.
"All this generates more crime," said Ramon Garcia Gibson, a former compliance officer at Citibank and an expert in money-laundering. "At the end of the day, this isn't good for anyone."
Officials on both sides of the border have begun taking tentative steps to stem the flow of dirty money. For Instance, last year Calderon proposed anti-laundering legislation, after earlier announcing restrictions on cash transactions in Mexico that used U.S. dollars.
The evolving anti-laundering campaign could change the tone of the government's military-led crime crusade by striking at the heart of the cartels' financial empire, analysts say. But the effort will have to overcome a longtime lack of political will and poor coordination among Mexican law enforcement agencies that have only aggravated the complexity of the task at hand now.
"If you don't take away their property, winning this war is impossible," said Sen. Ricardo Garcia Cervantes of the Senate security committee and Calderon's conservative National Action Party. "You are not going to win this war with bullets."
The good news for Mexican and Colombian traffickers is that drug sales in the United States generate enormous income, nearly all of it in readily spendable cash. The bad news is that this creates a towering logistical challenge: getting the proceeds back home to pay bills, buy supplies — from guns to chemicals to trucks — and build up the cartels' empires without detection.
Laundering allows traffickers to disguise the illicit earnings as legitimate through any number of transactions, such as cash transfers, big-ticket purchases, currency exchanges and deposits.
Much of that money still makes its way back into Mexico the old-fashioned way: in duffels stuffed into the trunks of cars. But Mexican drug traffickers are among the world's most savvy entrepreneurs, and launderers have proved nimble in evading authorities' efforts to catch them, adopting a host of new techniques to move the ill-gotten wealth.
For example, Mexican traffickers are taking advantage of blind spots in monitoring the nearly $400 billion of legal commerce between the two countries. The so-called trade-based laundering allows crime groups to disguise millions of dollars in tainted funds as ordinary merchandise — say, onions or precious metals, as they are trucked across the border.
In one case, the merchandise of choice was tons of polypropylene pellets used for making plastic. Exports of the product from the United States to Mexico appeared legitimate, but law enforcement officials say that by declaring a slightly inflated value, traders were able to hide an average of more than $1 million a month, until suspicious banks shut down the operation.
The inventive ploys even include gift cards, such as the kind you get your nephew for graduation. A drug-trafficking foot soldier simply loads up a prepaid card with dollars and walks across the border without having to declare sums over the usual $10,000 reporting requirement, thus carrying a car trunk's worth of cargo in his wallet.