Here's one way it works: Instead of smuggling the money the old-fashioned way, by simply carrying it south in bags and trucks, teams of money launderers working for cartels use dollars to purchase a commodity, and then export the commodity to Mexico or Colombia. Paperwork is generated that gives a patina of propriety. Drug money is given the appearance of legitimate proceeds from a trade transaction.The focus on goods exported to Mexico jumped out at me in particular because of another recent article, this one from Texas Monthly, on the causes of Texas' economic "miracle" which included this notable tidbit: "Of the $207 billion worth of goods Texas exported in 2010, more than a third were sold to Mexico, which adds up to an amount three times greater than those of our fellow border states (California, Arizona, and New Mexico) combined."
By turning their mountain of proceeds into tomatoes, say, or bolts of Chinese fabric shipped and resold in Mexico, cartels accomplish two goals at once: They transfer earnings back home to pay bills and buy new drug supplies while converting dollars to pesos in a transaction relatively easy to explain to authorities.
So exporting goods to Mexico is a key money laundering technique and Texas leads the other border states, by a wide margin, in exports to Mexico. In fact, Texas exports more, by dollar amount, than any other state.
For my part, I doubt that's a complete coincidence. Over the summer, Grits published a post titled, "The real secret behind Texas' economic boom: Drug trafficking." If I had it to do over I'd have put a question mark on the end of that title, since Texas' economic success is caused by a confluence of factors. But my main argument stands: That Texas' role as a drug distribution and money laundering hub funneled billions of dollars into the economy over the last decade, much of which propped up "legitimate" businesses laundering money for cartels. As I wrote then:
Not just cartels but also mid-level distributors set up front companies that lose money as a practical matter but serve as vehicles through which they can launder drug cash, making it a lot easier to distribute either back to Mexico or to other stakeholders in the US. This is happening today on a fairly widespread basis and it means a lot more marginal businesses stay afloat - how many, no one can tell - to perform what amount to retail-level money laundering functions.Adding the Times' analysis into the mix, it's a small leap to guess that many Texas businesses propped up by drug money are likely in the export business. As it turns out, reports the Times, dollars are harder to spend in Mexico these days than in the past, and cartels have a pressing need need to convert their holdings to pesos, for a variety of reasons discussed in the story. So bringing dollar bills across the border in a suitcase isn't good enough anymore. Thus the increased reliance on the export trade.
Examining the details arising from criminal cases is probably the best way to study how money laundering is occurring on the ground, and a significant number of those involve export businesses. Of all the examples I've heard of, though, one recent export-based money laundering scheme stands out above all others in Texas centered around the federal Ex-Im Bank. The story was well-covered for a time back in 2007 by reporter Byron Harris at WFAA in Dallas (but hardly anyone else) and Grits has written about it extensively. But somehow it never got traction the way Fast and Furious did; there were no Congressional hearings to investigate, and the people involved not only didn't lose their jobs but got promoted, while "reforms" resulted in only "voluntary guidelines" for lenders that did not forbid the same practices in the future. (Selling guns to cartels makes bigger ruckus, for whatever reason, than the government making nine-figure loans to drug runners that we never collect, or the DEA conspiring to launder their profits.)
The Ex-Im Bank is a federal agency that gives loans to businesses, including foreign companies, to purchase US exports. They made hundreds of millions in bad loans to Mexican companies during the Bush Administration, many of which went to non-existent front companies or outfits associated with drug cartels. Soon after the problems were discovered, and papered over, ironically, the chair of the Ex-Im Bank was named chief investment officer of the TARP fund that bailed out Wall Street. I'm only aware of one criminal prosecution stemming from the episode - a federal money laundering case (pdf) out of San Antonio that has now had time to play out.
To seriously tackle money laundering, then, the focus perhaps shouldn't be as much on suitcases of cash crossing checkpoints - a tactic that's already relatively well policed and less optimal for drug cartel liquidity - so much as crates of cargo leaving DFW Airport or in ships from the Port of Houston. Unlike investigations into drug smuggling, the Texas-side targets in money laundering schemes are more likely members of the local Chamber of Commerce, or else perhaps corporate or government bureaucrats, than tattooed gangbangers..
But will a "less government" Legislature be willing to proscribe, regulate or criminalize activities of seemingly legitimate export businesses, only a fraction of which engage in money laundering, in order to get to the bad eggs? For that matter, can a state regulate exports sufficiently to make a dent in the problem, or is that more properly and practically a federal role? Which reaches the even larger question: Besides southbound checkpoints aimed at seizing cash, what is the state role in investigation and prosecution of transnational money laundering? What can Texas do that the feds can't, or aren't doing? I suppose that's what the Senate Criminal Justice Committee will be discussing at the hearing on their interim charge.