America's drug habit the world's largest is making Mexican and Canadian dope dealers rich. Filthy rich, according to the latest data from U.S. counternarcotics analysts.
In one study, the Drug Enforcement Administration tried to figure out just how much Mexican traffickers were making off of U.S. narcotics sales. Analysts started with the amount of U.S. dollars present in Mexico and then subtracted all legitimate uses, such as money sent home by Mexican migrants in America. What remained were billions of U.S. dollars with no reason to be south of the border except as dope proceeds. The amount of "excess U.S. dollars" they found: at least $9.2 billion in 2003 and $10.2 billion in 2004.
That's a conservative estimate, investigators say. Money laundering experts then tried figuring it a different way in the latest National Drug Threat Assessment. Analysts took their best estimate of U.S.-bound shipments of Mexican marijuana, methamphetamines, and heroin, and of Colombian cocaine and heroin. They then multiplied this by the wholesale distribution price for those drugs in the United States. The overall amount depended on where the dope was sold (coke dealt in Boston, for example, fetches higher prices than in San Diego), but the results were still impressive: Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers were thought to rake in between $8.3 billion and $24.9 billion annually.
Surprisingly, Canadian traffickers are making a similar killing by supplying Americans with marijuana and MDMA. Again, the analysts took estimates of how much pot and ecstasy Canadians unloaded in the United States, and multiplied it by the going wholesale prices. The result: between $5.2 billion to $21.2 billion in drug revenues each year.
What happens to all that cash? It gets laundered, of course. Some goes through banks, currency exchange houses and remitters, or trade-based schemes like Colombia's black market peso exchange. But most of it is simply hauled back home by hand, in what drug agents call "bulk currency smuggling." Bulk is the right word a million dollars in $100 bills weighs about 22 pounds, say DEA officials, and smugglers can fit about $2 million to $3 million of them in an average-sized suitcase.
Investigators got a glimpse of the huge flow of funds last month, when Colombian police made what's thought to be the largest cash seizure yet: nearly 50 million U.S. dollars, 2 million Euros, and a cache of gold bars. The loot, found hidden in homes in the Cali area, is thought to be from the Norte Valle Cartel, a key player in the cocaine industry. More cash is turning up by the day. Says one DEA official: "The amounts we're seeing are staggering."
Photo caption: Smugglers can pack up to $3 million in $100 bills in a suitcase.
Photo credit: Drug Enforcement Administration