Death penalty doesn’t mean anything unless you use it on people who are afraid to die. Like… the bankers who launder the drug money. The bankers, who launder, the drug money. Forget the dealers, you want to slow down that drug traffic, you got to start executing a few of these fucking bankers. White, middle class Republican bankers.
— George Carlin, ‘Back in Town Special,’ 1996
In a recent investigation I presented the case that British banking and financial giant HSBC conspired with banking institutions with documented links to terrorist financing, including those responsible for helping bankroll the 9/11 attacks.
Drawing upon evidence published by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in their mammoth report, “U.S. Vulnerabilities to Money Laundering, Drugs, and Terrorist Financing: HSBC Case History,” we learned that senior HSBC officers, despite misgivings voiced by staff in internal correspondence, choose to continue profitable relations with Saudi Arabia’s Al Rajhi Bank, described by U.S. law enforcement agencies as moneymen for the CIA’s false flag specialists, Al Qaeda.
The same callous indifference which guided bank policy when it came to financing terrorists was HSBC’s modus operandi as they aided and abetted drug money laundering by some of the most violent gangsters on earth.
And with “all criminal proceeds … likely to have amounted to some 3.6 per cent of GDP (2.3-5.5 per cent) or around US$2.1 trillion in 2009,” as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) pointed out in that agency’s 2011 report, Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Crimes, the incentives for big banks to continue inflating their balance sheets with funds derived from global crime are compelling.
A Leg Up for Chapo
While it is oft said that “crime doesn’t pay,” that’s only true if you aren’t amongst the privileged few with enough cash and connections to avoid a trip to the slammer.
“Over the last decade,” Senate investigators reported, “the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has worked to strengthen U.S. AML efforts by investigating how money launderers, terrorists, organized crime, corrupt officials, tax evaders, and other wrongdoers have utilized U.S. financial institutions to conceal, transfer, and spend suspect funds.”
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Subcommittee focused “on how U.S. banks, through the correspondent services they provide to foreign financial institutions, had become conduits for illegal proceeds associated with organized crime, drug trafficking, and financial fraud.”
The report underlined the key role that correspondent banking plays in washing illegal proceeds through the system. Senate investigators averred that “Correspondent banking occurs when one financial institution provides services to another financial institution to move funds, exchange currencies, cash monetary instruments, or carry out other financial transactions.”
For HSBC’s Canary Wharf masters, the U.S. affiliate was a key part of their strategy to expand the bank’s tentacles into the lucrative North American market and they did so by standing up HSBC Bank USA N.A. (HNAH), better known as HBUS.
Indeed, a senior executive told the Subcommittee that the bank “acquired its U.S. affiliate, not just to compete with other U.S. banks for U.S. clients, but primarily to provide a U.S. platform to its non-U.S. clients and to use its U.S. platform as a selling point to attract still more non-U.S. clients.”
Clients like Chapo Guzmán, the fugitive billionaire who runs Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
Investigators found that “until recently,” that is, only after top officials were apprised of increased scrutiny by regulators, that “HSBC Group policy instructed its affiliates to assume that all HSBC affiliates met the Group’s AML standards and to open correspondent accounts for those affiliates without additional due diligence.”
“For years,” Senate staff noted, “HBUS followed that policy, opening U.S. correspondent accounts for HSBC affiliates without conducting any AML due diligence. Those affiliates have since become major clients of the bank.” In other words, liquidity trumped inconvenient rules and regulations which after all, following Leona Helmsley’s maxim, only applied to “little people.”
“In 2009, for example, HBUS determined that ‘HSBC Group affiliates clear[ed] virtually all USD [U.S. dollar] payments through accounts held at HBUS, representing 63% of all USD payments processed by HBUS.’ HBUS failed to conduct due diligence on HSBC affiliates despite a U.S. law that has required all U.S. banks, since 2002, to conduct these due diligence reviews before opening a U.S. correspondent account for any foreign financial institution, with no exception made for foreign affiliates.”
One HSBC affiliate which amply illustrated the bank’s shady proclivities was HSBC Mexico, known as HBMX. The Subcommittee asserted that “HBUS should have, but did not, treat HBMX as a high risk correspondent client subject to enhanced due diligence and monitoring. HBMX operated in Mexico, a country under siege from drug crime, violence and money laundering; it had high risk clients, such as Mexican casas de cambios and U.S. money service businesses; and it offered high risk products, such as U.S. dollar accounts in the Cayman Islands.”
Despite the risks, “from 2007 through 2008, HBMX was the single largest exporter of U.S. dollars to HBUS, shipping $7 billion in cash to HBUS over two years, outstripping larger Mexican banks and other HSBC affiliates.”
The Subcommittee noted that “Mexican and U.S. authorities expressed repeated concern that HBMX’s bulk cash shipments could reach that volume only if they included illegal drug proceeds. The concern was that drug traffickers unable to deposit large amounts of cash in U.S. banks due to AML controls, were transporting U.S. dollars to Mexico, arranging for bulk deposits there, and then using Mexican financial institutions to insert the cash back into the U.S. financial system.”
But as we previously learned when we explored cosy relations between suspected terrorist financiers at the Al Rajhi Bank and HSBC’s London Banknotes division, senior managers cared not a whit that billions of dollars entering the United States from Mexico came from laundered drug money.
Gateway for Narcodollars
One “line of business” that proved particularly lucrative for the bank and their drug lord clients was the “Global Banking and Markets” division. Operating in some 60 countries, the office provided a wide range of “‘tailored financial solutions’ to major government, corporate, and institutional clients.”
“This line of business,” Senate investigators reported, “includes an extensive network of correspondent banking relationships, in which HBUS provides banks from other countries with U.S. dollar accounts to transact business in the United States. Due to its affiliates in over 80 countries, HSBC is one of the largest providers of correspondent banking services in the world.”
What made this division particularly prone to manipulation was its brief to provide “access to the U.S. financial system by handling international wire transfers, clearing a variety of U.S. dollar instruments, including travelers cheques and money orders, and providing foreign exchange services. HBUS Payment and Cash Management (PCM) is a key banking division, located in New York, that supports HBUS’ correspondent relationships.”
Senate staff reported that until 2010, “HBUS housed the Global Banknotes Department, which used offices in New York City, London, Hong Kong, and elsewhere to buy, sell, and ship large amounts of physical U.S. dollars.”
“The Banknotes Department,” investigators disclosed, “derived its income from the trading, transportation, and storage of bulk cash, doing business primarily with other banks and currency exchange businesses, but also with HSBC affiliates.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to suspect that unscrupulous managers, once the wheels were sufficiently greased by clients such as Chapo Guzmán or cartel moneyman Pedro Alatorre, wouldn’t bend over backwards to clear dodgy transactions whatever the source.
Despite suspicions that all wasn’t well, “for a number of years, HBUS held a contract with the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) to operate U.S. currency vaults in several cities around the world to assist in the physical distribution of U.S. dollars to central banks, large commercial banks, and businesses involved with currency exchange.”
Undoubtedly, readers are aware that current U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, a former employee of Kissinger Associates was past president of FRBNY. From his perch at the New York Fed, Geithner worked assiduously to reduce the capital required to run a bank; an additional factor which led to the mammoth train wreck known as the 2008 capitalist economic crisis.
A protégé of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a Board Chairman of Goldman Sachs and one-time CEO at drug-tainted Citigroup, Geithner, in addition to a stint as a “Senior Fellow” at the Council on Foreign Relations, oversaw the $350 billion swindle known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) which bailed out his good friends at Goldman and AIG in the wake of Lehman Brothers collapse.
As Senate staff reported, HBUS’ “‘Global Asset Management’ line of business offers worldwide investment management services to clients, and currently manages nearly $400 billion in assets. It is one of the largest investment businesses in the world.”
Through their correspondent banking and Payments and Cash Management businesses, “HBUS has become one of the largest facilitators of cash transfers in the world. Between 2005 and 2009,” investigators informed us, “the total number of PCM wire transactions at HBUS grew from 20.4 million to 30.2 million transfers per year, with a total annual dollar volume that climbed from $62.4 trillion to $94.5 trillion.”
In 2008 alone according to Subcommittee findings, “HBUS processed about 600,000 wire transfers per week. In 2009, PCM was the third largest participant in the CHIPS wire transfer service which provides over 95% of U.S. dollar wire transfers across U.S. borders and nearly half of all wire transfers within the United States, totaling $1.5 trillion per day and over $400 trillion in 2011.”
How many of these trillions of dollars in wire transfers handled by HBUS were the result of illegal money laundering by drug gangsters? According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates, with some 3.6 percent of global GDP resulting from “criminal proceeds,” amounting to some $2.1 trillion in 2009 alone, certainly billions in hot money washed through the U.S. financial system while no one was looking.
Shooting the Messenger
While senior officers turned a blind eye to the bank’s criminal practices, honest officials who tried to warn HSBC higher-ups that there were severe deficiencies in monitoring dodgy transactions faced retaliation.
As a result of losses suffered by HSBC’s purchase of Household International and its portfolio of bad mortgages, the bank turned down requests to expand personnel at its Anti-Money Laundering division.
Despite the fact that “Compliance and AML staffing levels were kept low for many years as part of a cost cutting measure,” Senate investigators learned through HSBC internal correspondence that those charged with monitoring suspicious transactions were “struggling to ‘handle the growing monitoring requirements’ associated with the bank’s correspondent banking and cash management programs, and requested additional staff.”
Compliance officer Alan Ketley wrote higher-ups that despite having “very efficient processes,” his Compliance team was “handling an average of 3,800 [alerts] per person and [was] becoming overwhelmed thus potentially placing the business and the bank at risk.”
“Despite requests for additional AML staffing,” the Senate reported, “HBUS decided to hold staff levels to a flat headcount.”
“After being turned down for additional staff, Carolyn Wind, longtime HBUS Compliance head and AML director, raised the issue of inadequate resources with the HNAH board of directors. A month after the board meeting, after seven years as HBUS’ Compliance head Ms. Wind was fired,” Senate investigators disclosed.
Wind, who had met with HNAH’s board in October 2007 to discuss staffing, was reprimanded by her supervisor, Regional Compliance Officer and Senior Executive Vice President Janet L. Burak, for raising the issue. In an email to disgraced HSBC Group Compliance chief David Bagley, who dramatically resigned on camera during Senate hearings in July, Burak “expressed displeasure” with Wind. She told Bagley:
“I indicated to her [Ms. Wind] my strong concerns about her ability to do the job I need her to do, particularly in light of the comments made by her at yesterday’s audit committee meeting …. I noted that her comments caused inappropriate concern with the committee around: our willingness to pay as necessary to staff critical compliance functions (specifically embassy banking AML support), and the position of the OCC with respect to the merger of AML and general Compliance.”
In other words, because Wind had challenged shoddy staffing practices that led the institution into dangerous waters, she was fired by higher-ups more concerned with inflating the balance sheet, and raising their own profiles and salaries in the process, rather than complying with the law.
And despite a mountain of unresolved “alerts” and “suspicious activity reports,” and with only eight Compliance officers under “rigorous pressure to complete manual reviews of about 30,000 OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] alerts per week,” Senate investigators found serious “deficiencies in the quality of the work” which required “an independent assessment. The independent assessment found that 34% of the alerts supposedly resolved had to be re-done.”
While HSBC has cut some 27,000 jobs since 2011, the scandal-plagued bank still managed a 26 percent rise in 2012 first-quarter profits to the tune of $6.8bn (£4.18bn) according to The New York Times, attributed to “growth in its Asian and Latin American banking businesses [that] more than made up for a slump in Europe.”
Why if one were inclined to believe various “conspiracy theories,” one would almost believe that banks actually sought out dirty money from drug traffickers as a splendid means to bulk-up the bottom line.
Like Spots on a Hyena
As with other banks caught-up in recent money laundering scandals, HSBC’s Mexican affiliate is a case study in how banks get away with murder. Senate investigators disclosed that HBMX “illustrates how providing a correspondent account and U.S. dollar services to a high risk affiliate increased AML risks for HBUS.”
Created when HSBC Group purchased the Bital bank in 2002, we learned that a “pre-purchase review disclosed that the bank had no functioning compliance program, despite operating in a country confronting both drug trafficking and money laundering.”
“For years,” the Senate reported, “HSBC Group knew that HBMX continued to operate with multiple AML deficiencies while serving high risk clients and selling high risk products. HSBC Group also knew that HBMX had an extensive correspondent relationship with HBUS and that suspect funds moved through the HBMX account, but failed to inform HBUS of the extent of the AML problems at HBMX so that HBUS could treat HBMX as a high risk account. Instead, until 2009, HBUS treated HBMX as low risk.”
As in the case of Wachovia, “HBMX engaged in many high risk activities. It opened accounts for high risk clients, including Mexican casas de cambios and U.S. money service businesses, such as Casa de Cambio Puebla and Sigue Corporation which later legal proceedings showed had laundered funds from illegal drug sales in the United States.”
Undeterred by the risks involved, HBMX “offered high risk products, including providing U.S. dollar accounts in the Cayman Islands to nearly 50,000 clients with $2.1 billion in assets, many of which supplied no KYC information and some of which misused their accounts on behalf of a drug cartel.”
“HBMX was also the single largest exporter of U.S. dollars to HBUS, transferring over $3 billion in 2007 and $4 billion in 2008, amounts that far outstripped larger Mexican banks and other HSBC affiliates,” investigators disclosed.
Indeed, “Mexican and U.S. law enforcement and regulatory authorities expressed concern that HBMX’s bulk cash shipments could reach that volume only if they included illegal drug proceeds that had been brought back to Mexico from the United States.”
So blatant were HSBC’s dodgy practices that for a three-year period between 2006-2009, Senate investigators discovered that “HBUS failed to conduct any AML monitoring of its U.S. dollar transactions with HSBC affiliates, including HBMX, which meant that it made no effort to identify any suspicious activity, despite the inherent risks in large cash transactions.”
Proving that crime pays if you’re well connected, “HBMX used those accounts to process U.S. dollar wire transfers, clear bulk U.S. dollar travelers cheques, and accept and make deposits of bulk cash, all of which exposed, not only itself, but also HBUS, to substantial money laundering risks.”
“HSBC Group also compounded the AML risks by failing to alert HBUS to HBMX’s ongoing, severe AML deficiencies,” the Senate reported. But why would they? Given Carolyn Wind’s firing when she sought to increase staff who might be in position to monitor shady transactions from a very profitable Mexican affiliate, one can only conclude that higher-ups were more than happy to turn a blind eye when it came to illegal practices.
A 2006 State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), noted that Mexico is a country of “primary” concern for money laundering, its highest rating.
“The State Department’s relentlessly negative assessments of Mexico’s drug trafficking and money laundering vulnerabilities continued unabated,” Senate investigators observed.
“In 2008, the State Department wrote that ‘U.S. officials estimate that since 2003, as much as U.S. $22 billion may have been repatriated to Mexico from the United States by drug trafficking organizations’.”
“Four years later, in 2012” Senate staff averred, “the State Department wrote that drug cartels were using Mexican and U.S. financial institutions to launder as much as $39 billion each year: ‘According to U.S. authorities, drug trafficking organizations send between $19 and $39 billion annually to Mexico from the United States’.”
“As a consequence,” of HBMX’s “lowest-risk rating” the Senate reported, “under HSBC Group policy, clients from Mexico were not subjected to enhanced monitoring by HBUS, unless they were also designated a Special Category Client (SCC), a relatively rare designation that indicates a client poses high AML risks.”
In other words, with upwards of $39 billion washing through the system annually, “enhanced due diligence and account monitoring” by HBUS of their clients wasn’t in the cards.
Indeed, in a 2009 risk assessment conducted by HSBC, Mexico was assigned a score of “2,” which was “one of the lowest scores.”
When queried by Senate investigators about the low score, Ali Kazmy, the HBUS compliance officer responsible for country risk assessments “told the Subcommittee that, since 2006, HBUS’ assessments had inadvertently failed to take into account a 2006 FinCEN advisory related to Mexico that would have added 10 points to its score each year. As a result of its low score, Mexico was rated a ‘standard’ risk, the lowest of the four risk ratings.”
As U.S. law enforcement agencies, ironically enough under pressure from Mexican officials to crackdown on money laundering by U.S. banks, “Mexican regulators confronted HBMX with suspicions that drug proceeds were moving through its accounts at HBUS.”
In 2009, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) “informed the OCC that ICE was investigating possible money laundering activity involving banknote accounts at HBUS. ICE indicated that Mexican drug traffickers appeared to be using the black market peso exchange in New York to transfer funds through a particular Mexican financial institution, which then sent the funds through its U.S. correspondent account at HBUS.”
“What U.S. law enforcement officials had found was that, because drug traffickers in the United States were having difficulty finding a U.S. financial institution that would accept large amounts of cash, due to strict U.S. AML controls, many were instead transporting large volumes of U.S. dollars to Mexico, and depositing the dollars at Mexican financial institutions.”
“The drug traffickers could then keep their deposits in U.S. dollars through the Mexican financial institution’s correspondent account at a U.S. bank, or exchange the dollars for pesos,” the Senate reported. “The Mexican banks, casas de cambio, and other financial institutions that were the recipients of the cash typically shipped the physical dollars back to the United States for credit to their own U.S. dollar correspondent accounts at U.S. banks.”
In 2009, OCC Deputy Chief Counsel Dan Stipano explained the grift to Sally Belshaw, the OCC Examiner-In-Charge at HBUS:
“The scheme … is similar to activity that we have seen at Union Bank, Wachovia, and Zions. Basically, the way it works is that drug money is physically hauled across the border into Mexico, then brought back into the United States through wire transfers from casas de cambio or small Mexican banks, or else smuggled across the border in armored cars, etc., before being deposited in US. Institutions. According to AUSA [Assistant U.S. Attorney] Weitz, most U.S. banks, recognizing the risks involved, have gotten out of this business, but HSBC NY is one of the last holdouts (although, interestingly, he said that HSBC-Mexico will no longer accept U.S. currency).” (emphasis added)
HBMX was rocked by scandal when it emerged that one of its biggest clients, the wealthy Chinese-Mexican citizen, Zhenli Ye Gon, was accused by the Drug Enforcement Administration, in a joint operation with Mexican authorities, of high-level drug trafficking. In March 2007, the Mexican Government “seized over $205 million in U.S. dollars, $17 million in Mexican pesos, firearms, and international wire transfer records” from Zhenli’s residence.
The cash, hidden in a secret locked room in Zhenli’s home was described by the media at the time as the largest cash seizure in a drug-related case in history.
Zhenli, a self-described “prominent businessman,” was “the owner of three Mexican corporations involved in the pharmaceutical field, Unimed Pharm Chem Mexico S.A. de C.V.; Constructora e Inmobiliaria Federal S.A. de C.V.; and Unimed Pharmaceutical, S.A. de C.V.”
According to Senate investigators, he was accused of using his corporations as fronts “to import, manufacture, and sell chemicals to drug cartels for use in manufacturing methamphetamine, an illegal drug sold in the United States. He was also accused of displaying ‘significant unexplained wealth,’ despite reporting no gross income for his companies for the years 2005, 2006, and 2007.”
Although Zhenli was indicted in Mexico on drug, firearm and money laundering charges, he “could not be located.” Why? Because he had fled to the United States where he awaits extradition to Mexico on drug trafficking charges.
Eventually indicted by U.S. federal prosecutors “for aiding and abetting the manufacture of methamphetamine,” two years later “U.S. prosecutors dismissed the charges, after a witness recanted key testimony.”
What made Zhenli’s arrest particularly embarrassing to HBUS officials was the fact that internal documents revealed that Zhenli’s Unimed “accounts were opened by Bital, retained by HBMX, and housed in HMBX’s Personal Financial Services (PFS) division, even though the official clients were corporations and should not have been serviced by the PFS division.”
Despite the dodgy nature of the accounts, they were not designated “high risk.” One top HSBC executive, John Root, told the Senate that although the Unimed account “had attracted the attention” of HBMX regulators and they had been instructed to terminate the account, he and another top official, Susan Wright “did not realize the account was still open, until he and Ms. Wright saw the press articles regarding Unimed in 2007.”
Another Day, Another ‘Investigation’
Regulatory “lapses” and half-hearted “investigations” continue.
Recently, The New York Times reported that “federal and state authorities are investigating a handful of major American banks for failing to monitor cash transactions in and out of their branches, a lapse that may have enabled drug dealers and terrorists to launder tainted money.”
Citing (who else!) “anonymous officials,” regulators “led by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, are close to taking action against JPMorgan Chase for insufficient safeguards, the officials said. The agency is also scrutinizing several other Wall Street giants, including Bank of America.”
But rather than investigating the role of laundered drug money in inflating the balance sheets of the big banks, the Times, citing “compliance experts,” argued that “violations are typically unintentional and often harmless because they aren’t always exploited by criminals.”
An April cease-and-desist order against drug-tainted Citigroup is instructive in this regard. Charging there were “gaps” in Citi’s oversight of cash transactions, the order specified there were “internal control weaknesses including the incomplete identification of high-risk customers in multiple areas of the bank.”
According to an unnamed “person close to the bank,” Citi’s “internal control weaknesses” were attributed “to an accident when a computer was unplugged from anti-money-laundering systems.”
Such mendacity is the banking equivalent of “the dog ate my homework,” yet for America’s “newspaper of record” such fabrications are accepted at face value despite Citigroup’s decades-long history of financial fraud, stock manipulation and other crimes, including laundering billions of dollars of drug money.
Today, the stakes are immeasurably higher. As the capitalist system threatens to implode and sinks ever-deeper into a liquidity crisis brought on in no small part by the gross criminality of our masters, a recent study by James Henry, author of The Price of Offshore Revisited, has shown that at least $21-$32 trillion (£13-£20.5tn) has been hidden in tax havens that operate as little more than global money laundering centers.
According to Henry: “The subterranean system that we are trying to measure is the economic equivalent of an astrophysical black hole.” Indeed, “The very existence of the global offshore industry, and the tax-free status of the enormous sums invested by their wealthy clients, is predicated on secrecy: that is what this industry really ‘supplies’ as it competes for, conceals, and manages private capital from all over the planet, from any and all sources, no questions asked.”
As former U.S. Customs deep-cover specialist Robert Mazur, the author of The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, explained to Business Insider, “‘the international community is today doing the same thing that BCCI and their officers were doing 20 years ago’–citing the HSBC money-laundering scandal and the tax havens of the super-rich–and told BI that the problem is much larger than the estimated $2.1 trillion that crime generates each year.”
According to Mazur, HSBC employed methods “traditionally used by banks in a big way [to] facilitate relationships with people who want to hide money from governments” and explained that bankers provide these services “to entice these people to bank with them” thereby enabling banks to increase their deposits.
More attuned to the needs of their banking “clients” to remain “healthy,” regulators are “not as focused on the issue of criminal conduct.” In fact, “there’s nothing built in the system to engage criminal investigations up front.”
“One straightforward way” to deter financial officers from profiting from criminal activities, “would be to crack down on bankers who solicit shady business–like the ones at HSBC–by putting a few ‘behind bars for a very long period of time’ instead of just giving them a fine,” Mazur said.
This is unlikely to happen. After all, the first order of business during a period of unprecedented elite criminality is to shield financial institutions and their officers, deemed “too big to fail or jail” from accountability.
Never mind that such practices facilitate global crime in all their varied forms–from drug trafficking to terrorism and from imperialist wars of conquest to the outright theft of public property for private profit–incentives for regulators to crackdown or for prosecutors to send corporate criminals to prison remain virtually nonexistent.