DEA Launders Drug Money for Mexican Cartels

By Will Godfrey 12/05/11

"Follow the money" tactics controversially see agents smuggle and launder millions.

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Does money laundering pay its way
for the DEA?

DEA agents routinely smuggle cash across borders and launder large sums for Mexican cartels, reports the New York Times. Although this is done in the hope of catching bigger fish, the undercover tactics are controversial—especially when combined with reassurances as elastic as that given by former senior agency official Michael S. Vigil: “We tried to make sure there was always close supervision of these operations so that we were accomplishing our objectives, and agents weren’t laundering money for the sake of laundering money.” Other agency sources reject comparisons between money laundering and the much-criticized ploy of ATF operation Fast and Furious—which allowed guns to be bought and smuggled, also in the hope of tracking down high-up cartel members. “These are not the people whose faces are known on the street,” argues ex-DEA undercover agent Robert Mazur. “They are super-insulated. And the only way to get to them is to follow their money.”

Anonymous DEA officials claim US agents often pick up drug money two or three times a week, and that these operations have spread to Europe, the Middle East and Africa as the cartels go global. “If you’re going to get into the business of laundering money,” says one, “then you have to be able to launder money.” Department of Justice approval is technically required for law enforcement to launder more than $10 million at a time during an investigation, but apparently this isn't strictly enforced. “They tell you they’re bringing you $250,000, and they bring you a million,” says an ex-agent. “What’s the agent supposed to do then, tell them no, he can’t do it? They’ll kill him.” The DEA "tries" to recoup the quantity of money it launders via the trafficking fees charged by undercover agents, and seizures. The Times points out there's little evidence that laundering operations produce stings big enough to seriously hit the cartels' pockets; just $1 billion was seized by the DEA last year, when the total drug money circulation between Mexico and the US is put at between $18 billion and $39 billion.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.