Mile-High Money Laundering Network Dismantled in Colombia

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Authorities in Colombia have dismantled an international money laundering network that allegedly used glamorous flight attendants to smuggle huge amounts of illicit cash on behalf of Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking groups.

Authorities recently arrested 13 suspects in four different provinces of Colombia, including five flight attendants working for the Avianca Airlines, on charges of money laundering, illicit enrichment, and criminal conspiracy, reported Semana. The sting was part of a year-long investigation carried out by officials in the United States, Colombia, Mexico, and Spain that has so far resulted in 58 arrests, including 24 flight attendants, reported El Tiempo.

According to El Tiempo, alleged members of the money laundering network have links to the heads of Colombian criminal groups the Rastrojos and Urabeños, as well as the jailed leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. It is presumed the money was being laundered for these organizations. 

Prosecutors said the flight attendants were found with $5.4 million and 1.2 million euros hidden in their luggage or strapped onto their bodies, reported the AFP. These figures, however, may just be scratching the surface of the scope of this international criminal network. Colombia’s Deputy Attorney General, Jorge Perdomo, said the structure is believed to have laundered up to $250 million per year, according to a separate El Tiempo report. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The amount of money that was allegedly being laundered suggests this network’s modus operandi may not be an outlier. This case certainly fits into a larger pattern seen throughout the region of criminal groups opting to move illicit cash in bulk instead of relying on more traditional money laundering techniques like shell companies and the banking sector. Ecuador, for example, saw a major jump in the amount of cash being smuggled through its borders between 2008 and 2012.

According to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, criminal organizations are increasingly turning to bulk cash smuggling in response to tightened anti-money laundering regulations that have made laundering illicit cash via the financial sector more difficult. 

In fact, an unidentified US official indicated to El Tiempo that cash smuggling has potentially become as profitable as the traditional money laundering methods. 

“The vast majority of money laundered by mafias is moved via bank accounts and can be traced using financial documents,” the official said. “But this [cash smuggling] method appears to be just as lucrative.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

Using flight attendants to transfer cash shipments also carries a number of specific advantages for criminal groups. In addition to the speed with which the money can cross borders, flight attendants are not subject to the same security checks as passengers. In addition, the attendants who were recently arrested reportedly used a special wrapping paper that blocked the X-ray scanners from detecting the illegitimate cash.   

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