When it comes to big drugs, big crimes, and bigger money, it's tough to look away from the latest, greatest, mind-boggling deal. It's tough, say, to stop listening for any echo ringing off the wrist slap leveled against HSBC Holdings plc, the British multinational banking giant that recently admitted to laundering some $881 million for two of the world's most powerful drug cartels over five-plus years.
But holding a tight shot on the unconscionable transgressions of the world's third largest bank risks blotting out the bigger problem--systemic interbank money laundering has ruthless kingpins, notorious despots, and blind-eye banking executives working in a sort of blooden triangle. Over a dozen big banks have settled with the US Justice Department over various laundering infringements since 2006, according to Robert Mazur, a former US federal agent. Citing court filings in a New York Times op-ed, Mazur's catalogue of criminal misdeeds reads like a Who's Who of too-big-to-fail slimeballery.
There's ING Bank, which forked over a $619 million fine last June for tampering records and quietly moving in excess of $2 billion "for entities trading with Iran and other nations under sanctions." There's American Express Bank International's owning up to the distinct possibility that it laundered over $55 million in drug earnings through some of its offshore shell accounts. There's ABN Amro Holdings (now owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland), Barclay's, Credit Suisse, Lloyds, Standard Chartered, Union Bank of California, and Wachovia--all of which, in the end, reached settlements with the Justice Department that dodged prosecutions on faith that the banks sharpen their internal-oversight spears. Mazur, whose 27-year career involved stretches as an undercover money launderer, dismisses all this as "the equivalent of traffic tickets."
So it's not just HSBC. In a 2010 interview with Profil, United Nation's Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa put it bluntly: Money from both the global drugs trade and various other illegal activities have been the sole lifelines keeping many large banks in operation. But we can nevertheless look at how HSBC's Mexican branch pulled off transferring so much money to get an idea as to how the new global interbanking system keeps ticking.