By Robert Mazur | NY Times
Last month, HSBC admitted in court pleadings that it had allowed big Mexican and Colombian drug cartels to launder at least $881 million.
The bank also admitted to using various schemes to move hundreds of millions of dollars to nations subject to trade sanctions, including Iran, Cuba and Sudan, in violation of the Trading With the Enemy Act.
“On at least one occasion,” according to a statement by Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, “HSBC instructed a bank in Iran on how to format payment messages so that the transactions would not be blocked or rejected by the United States.”
Those were some of the transgressions uncovered during a two-year investigation led by the Justice and Treasury Departments and acknowledged by HSBC in a settlement, known as a deferred prosecution agreement, that was filed in a federal court in December.
Not a single executive was charged with a crime. Instead, the bank paid $1.9 billion in fines and forfeitures — or roughly 10 percent of the pretax profits it earned in just 2010, one of the more than five years during which it admitted to criminal conduct.
HSBC is hardly alone. Court filings show that, since 2006, more than a dozen banks have reached settlements with the Justice Department regarding violations related to money laundering. ING Bank paid a $619 million fine for altering records and secretly transferring more than $2 billion for entities trading with Iran and other nations under sanctions.
American Express Bank International acknowledged that more than $55 million in drug proceeds may have been laundered through offshore shell accounts it maintained.
The Justice Department has signed similar agreements, withholding prosecution in exchange for bank promises to tighten oversight, with Wachovia, Union Bank of California, Lloyds, Credit Suisse, ABN Amro Holding (now owned by Royal Bank of Scotland), Barclays and Standard Chartered. All admitted to criminal offenses; all were handed the equivalent of traffic tickets — pay a fine on your way out the door.
This has been the government’s playbook in fighting terrorism and the drug trade. For make no mistake, without the ability to “wash” billions of dollars of money from illicit sources each year and bank the untraceable profits, both of these criminal enterprises would falter.
In November, the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management issued a shocking report documenting the collaboration between Mexican and Colombian drug cartels and Hezbollah in narcotics and human trafficking, smuggling and financial crimes in the United States and Latin America — a partnership that, in just the border region between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, produces an estimated $12 billion in cash each year.