Pubdate: Tue, 06 Dec 2011
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2011 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.


The international drug trade has always had a currency problem. The 
more aggressive an illicit organization becomes at moving narcotics 
into the U.S., the more cash it accumulates. At some point, all those 
dollars have to be processed or the business chokes on its own sordid success.

Federal investigators for years have employed the old dictum - follow 
the money - but with a twist. At some point in the hunt for the 
really bad guys at the top, agents sometimes become custodians of the 
cash, picking it up in great bundles, depositing it in accounts and 
then watching as the drug underworld moves the millions earned on the streets.

Operation Juno, conducted over three years in the late 1990s against 
the Colombian drug cartels, is one example for these kinds of 
prosecutions. Undercover agents with the Drug Enforcement 
Administration picked up huge bundles of cash, as much as $500,000 a 
pop, from couriers who delivered the cash booty in gym bags at major 
cities, Dallas and Houston among them.

The money was placed by the DEA in a bank account in Atlanta, where 
the black market of money laundering then moved the cash to various 
accounts in the U.S. and around the world. The sting resulted in over 
40 arrests and the seizure of $10 million. In addition, more than 300 
bank accounts with an additional $16 million in drug deposits were 
identified, most of them abroad. The novel investigation, the first 
of its kind, exposed the international money trail and paid huge 
dividends for prosecutors.

News that the DEA, under the supervision of the Justice Department, 
is conducting these kinds of operations in Mexico is not surprising. 
The two countries have worked closely on this common front since 
President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in 2006. One 
result of the cooperation, according to a recent article in The New 
York Times, is the lifting of a ban that prevented U.S. agents from 
doing this kind of undercover work. The restriction had been in place 
since 1998, when the U.S. carried out a sting without the knowledge 
of authorities in Mexico.

Are these undercover operations targeting Mexico's powerful drug 
cartels a good idea? Yes, provided that they are conducted with the 
proper safeguards and oversights. There is nothing to indicate that 
they are not, though the Times article does leave the impression that 
perhaps more stringent guidelines are in order.

The undercover gun-smuggling fiasco known as Fast and Furious in some 
ways now haunts all these covert operations. That's a bit unfair. But 
if there is a lesson from that rogue operation, which was conducted 
by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives - not the 
DEA - it is that officials need to aggressively monitor what happens 
in the field. Now that news of the money-laundering operation is out, 
senior officials at Justice and their congressional overseers should 
ask the right questions and make sure they get satisfactory answers.
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