Union Tribune

March 8, 2004

Cartels keeping ahead in shell game with drug money
U.S. authorities say trail is hard to track


WASHINGTON – Despite the weakening of the Arellano Félix leadership in Tijuana two years ago, U.S. authorities haven't been able to track all the drug cartels' money.

"I'm not happy with the ability we have so far demonstrated in going after the money, given the amount of drugs and revenue estimates," John Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a recent interview. "We do not have a very good picture how the money is flowing."

For years, the Arellano cartel, based in Tijuana, controlled about 60 percent of the drug trafficking at the U.S. border. The cartel was responsible for hundreds of slayings, authorities have said.

But the cartel's grip on drug routes in Baja California was loosened considerably when its leaders were toppled.

The cartel's top enforcer, Ramón Arellano Félix, was killed in a shootout with police in Mazatlan on Feb. 10, 2002. The cartel's boss, Benjamín Arellano Félix, was arrested in Puebla, Mexico, a month after his brother's death.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials, who declined to be identified, agreed with Walters.

The officials blamed two primary factors: The lack of proper intelligence to determine the scope of the cartels' wealth, and the increasing use of cash by the cartels to elude the federal banking systems.

Many of the cartels over the years have laundered their money through hotels, businesses and various corporate entities.

Money laundering moves funds through a variety of accounts to disguise income from crimes, such as drug trafficking. Some U.S. banks have assisted in the laundering of drug money, according to congressional committee investigations. Money laundering has been illegal in the United States since 1986.

After the U.S. government cracked down on laundering through banks, many cartels are increasingly using cash to avoid detection, officials said.

Over the years, the United States has worked with other countries to unravel the money sources of drug-trafficking organizations. In the 1990s, an investigation into the Cali mafia in Colombia led to 200 arrests and the seizure of more than $50 million in cash.

Still, drug investigators say it's difficult to halt complex schemes.

The Arellano cartel, for example, operates largely in cash and hides its resources in myriad businesses, a DEA official said.

"When someone gets killed or arrested, other family members take over as caretakers of the organization," said a DEA official, who declined to be identified. "We don't have a complete picture, because most of the money is in cash."

Walters said U.S. officials are trying to improve how they estimate the cartels' drug profits. U.S. officials are building theoretical models to duplicate potential money-laundering operations. And they are trying to get more information about the specifics of the drug-trafficking operations from suspects they've arrested.

In the meantime, Walters said he is pleased with the Mexican government's effort to break up the cartels.

Top leaders of cartels "have been arrested in unprecedented numbers across major and multiple organizations," Walters said.