http://www.iht.com/IHT/TODAY/WED/IN/peso.2.html Paris, Wednesday, August 30, 2000 Following the Money-Laundering Trail Into Colombia Clinton's Bogota Agenda / Inside the Peso Exchange
By Karen DeYoung Washington Post Service
BOGOTA - Early this month, a $1.5 million Bell helicopter was tracked by Colombia-based U.S. Customs agents from Bogota to Panama, where it was seized by local authorities acting at U.S. request. The helicopter, a seven-seat Bell 407, was purchased in 1998 by a Colombian multimillionaire with laundered drug-smuggling money, according to the Customs Service and the Justice Department.
The Texas-based manufacturer, Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., has denied knowing that drug profits were the source of the money in its New York bank account, where payment for the aircraft was deposited via 31 separate wire transfers from unrelated individuals.
Bell, which is due to sell 42 military helicopters destined for Colombia as part of a $1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug aid package, is aggressively contesting the Justice Department decision last year to freeze the account and demand that the money be forfeited.
U.S. authorities described the purchase as one example of a money-laundering scheme known as the black-market peso exchange, which Colombia says turns an estimated $5 billion a year in ill-gotten U.S. currency into Colombian pesos with the purchase and illegal import of American products, often through neighboring third countries.
The black-market peso exchange constitutes what James Johnson, undersecretary for enforcement at the Treasury Department, called ''perhaps the most dangerous and damaging form of money laundering that we have ever encountered.''
ALTHOUGH the amount pales when compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars devoted to military equipment and training, nearly $40 million of the controversial new U.S. aid package will directly or indirectly help finance programs designed to strengthen Colombia's ability to catch and prosecute those involved with contraband or the laundering of drug money.
The increasingly close relationship between U.S. and Colombian customs agents - a relationship that surpasses ties between the two nations' still sometimes wary military forces - will be on the agenda when President Bill Clinton pays a visit to President Andres Pastrana of Colombia on Wednesday.
In addition to supplying computers and software to enable the Colombians to better track their own imports, the United States will expand an existing training program for Colombian customs agents. ''What we wanted was for U.S. Customs to come in and take over'' the Colombian service, which was ''corrupt, unprepared, with no technology and no resources,'' said a Colombian trade official.
Colombia broke international precedent last spring by agreeing to send its monthly legal import records to Washington, where customs agents collate them with U.S. banking and law enforcement records and with shipping manifests for products leaving the United States for Colombia.
Those products recorded as leaving the United States, but not listed as arriving in Colombia, are considered contraband, and the information is passed to Colombian authorities.
For its part, a U.S. government that long denied American exporters were part of the problem has begun a campaign to warn companies such as Bell - and the cigarette, alcohol, appliance, electronics and auto parts manufacturers whose products consistently are illegally offered for sale in Colombia - that they risk losing their money or worse if they turn a blind eye to clear signs of smuggling or payment in laundered funds.
''When a company receives payment for its exports in the form of wire transfers, checks or cash from random third parties with no connection to the transaction, alarm bells should go off at corporate headquarters,'' said the U.S. Customs commissioner, Raymond Kelly. ''This is not how standard business deals are done.''
In the Bell case, none of the 31 deposits to pay for the civilian helicopter had any ostensible link to any of the others or to the aircraft's actual purchaser, identified as Victor Carranza, who the Justice Department has alleged was well-known to Bell and whose company had previously done business with Bell.
Also, five of the deposits were made by undercover customs agents who had infiltrated a drug money laundering ring operating across the United States. Its exposure in July 1999 resulted in 34 U.S. indictments; the seizure of 530 kilograms (1,160 pounds) of cocaine and $4.5 million in cash, and the freezing of 65 bank accounts, including Bell's.
Mr. Carranza, the principal shareholder in Colombia's largest emerald mining company, is in prison in Bogota on charges of sponsoring and financing rightist paramilitary forces. Colombian and U.S. investigators have also alleged that he is involved in drug smuggling.
ACUSTOMS affidavit laying claim to the helicopter was unsealed this month in federal court in Washington, after the aircraft was seized. According to officials in Washington, associates of Mr. Carranza had flown the helicopter from Colombia to Panama to try to conceal it. No one has asked the U.S. government to give it back.
Neither Bell nor the Justice Department would comment on the frozen-funds case.
Responding to the Justice Department's claim that Bell should forfeit the money, the company said in a court filing that it ''denies that any funds on deposit in the specified bank account are proceeds of drug trafficking activity or are forfeitable pursuant to any statutory provision.''
Drug traffickers give their dirty dollars to peso brokers in the United States. Colombians who want to import U.S. products circumvent official requirements for obtaining dollars and deposit their pesos with brokers in Bogota.
After taking a cut of 20 percent or more on both sides, the U.S. broker pays manufacturers and their distributors with the dollars, usually through a series of ever-changing accounts in the names of paid individuals who are told where to wire cash and in what amount. The broker in Colombia then deposits the purchaser's pesos in the traffickers' Colombian accounts.
The purchased U.S. goods are delivered to Colombia, usually via free trade zones in Panama and Aruba, through a network of ports on Colombia's Caribbean coast that have long been dominated by smugglers.
While some products, such as Mr. Carranza's helicopter, go directly to their ultimate purchasers, others are sold to consumers at markets across the country, called sanandrecitos, after the free trade zone on the Colombian island of San Andres in the Caribbean.