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MONEY-LAUNDERING RINGS STYMIE GERMAN OFFICIALS

Michael Weiss knows that a foreign narcotics ring is selling hard drugs on German streets and sending its profits home through Hamburg area banks.

But the chief of Hamburg's organized crime police unit can't seize the money or take the couriers to court because Germany, unlike most other wealthy European nations and the United States, has no law against money-laundering."Every month between 6 million and 8 million marks ($3.6 million and $4.8 million)" flow back to the drug dons from Germany, says Weiss, who refuses to name the ring or its nationality for fear of jeopardizing his investigation.

"Our country has become an El Dorado (gold mine) for money-laundering," says Juergen Meyer, a lawmaker with the opposition Social Democrats.

Addressing growing concerns both at home and abroad, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government has written a draft anti-laundering law, which it hopes to pass before the summer. But some law authorities say the law as it stands won't be effective.

Money-laundering essentially legalizes profits from crime. To launder money, criminals tuck cash into a foreign bank, eventually recycling it back into their hands.

In the United States, investigators can confiscate money if there is reason to believe it came from a crime and then seek to have the assets permanently impounded. All bank transactions over $10,000 must be reported to federal authorities.

But German law authorities can't seize money as evidence, unless there is absolute proof it was illegally obtained. And German banks are not required to report suspicious transactions or to ask for the identification of strangers transferring large amounts of money.

At the same time, Germany is struggling with a growing drug problem. The country is a main European destination for Turkish heroin and cocaine from South America. Last year, heroin and cocaine overdose deaths rose from 1,400 to more than 2,000, say federal authorities.

The absence of a money-laundering law reportedly irritates the United States, because traffickers have sold cocaine in the United States and concealed their profits in Germany.

In 1989, a German court ruled against U.S. drug agents' request for seizure of $20 million kept in a Hamburg bank by Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. The judge said there was no legal basis to confiscate the money.

Der Spiegel magazine reported that the United States has threatened to "pillory" Germany if it doesn't crack down on drug money-laundering. The magazine implied that the United States would release information that would embarrass Germany.

In the meantime, the use of Germany as a money-laundering haven is growing, Der Spiegel reported.

In the early 1980s, between $2.4 billion and $3.6 billion in drug money was laundered in Germany, according to Spiegel. "Today it is many times more than that," the magazine said.

Spiegel told of a case in the mid-1980s when a woman from Madrid exchanged more than $2.4 million in Spanish pesetas at a Frankfurt bank over two years "and not a single (bank) employee asked about the money's origins," Spiegel said. The money came from heroin sales, the magazine said.