Cleaning getaways

Who better to reveal the seamy side of offshore life than a convicted money launderer? Brendan Malkin investigates

Humberto Aguilar, who once used to run his own thriving law firm in southern Florida and who is now a respected part-time lecturer, remembers warehouses in Miami full of the proceeds of drug trafficking. “They were piled high with cash. Everywhere you looked was money,” he recalls.

That was in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when Aguilar divided his professional life between representing criminals and laundering some of the contents of these warehouses throughout the offshore world.
He was then in his 20s and, as he now tells his university students in relation to his laundering sideline, he was “flying by the seat of his pants”.

For Aguilar, laundering was relatively easy. He knew the corrupt and the corruptible among the banking and legal professions in a raft of offshore states. Upon his request, in return for a cut, these professionals would set up bank accounts to house the dirty money. The cash would then be sent to another offshore state, and then another, before most of it finally returned to the US, clean and untraceable.

All this required just a few phone calls from Aguilar, who could make $100,000 from laundering in a single afternoon. He earned even more cash if his drug trafficking client wanted his loot to disappear offshore very quickly.

Since Aguilar’s days of crime (which ended with a seven and a half-year prison sentence between 1992 and 1999 for drug importation, conspiracy to launder and travelling overseas to perpetuate a felony), the offshore world has undergone a revolution. Offshore regulators – the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) – have blacklisted badly regulated offshore states. Many tax havens now focus on attracting legitimate business by claiming to offer an uncorrupt financial services system.

Nevertheless, Aguilar is convinced that offshore money laundering is still as big a business as it ever was. The difference, he says, is that launderers have to be “more careful and behave differently”.

Such a statement is bound to anger most offshore lawyers, who insist almost all professionals in tax havens from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean and down to Hong Kong are purer than pure.
Aguilar is, however, well placed to make such a judgement. Since his release from prison, he has spent his life speaking to the likes of officers from the US’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), based in Central America, and the Special Branch in London, helping them to understand the extent of offshore laundering.

He also lectures regularly at symposiums and universities, where, it seems, Aguilar is as popular a figure as eminent crime fighters. For instance, at a conference hosted by London fraud organisation STOP Money Laundering! on 25 and 26 November, his co-speakers will include members of Russia’s Central Bank, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Kenya’s attorney-general Amos Wako. Aguilar, who is now committed to a life of good works, in part bases his popularity on the ancient maxim ‘It takes a thief to catch a thief’.

Aguilar says that during his laundering days he could approach lawyers or bankers easily in such places and seek to launder a client’s money. Few questions were asked because, as a lawyer himself, he appeared to have excellent credentials.

These days it is less easy, admits Aguilar, but it is still possible. “Having long-established relationships [with offshore bankers and lawyers] helps [clients to launder],” he says. “However, it’s harder [for a launderer] to find the right offshore banker or lawyer.”

Subtlety, astuteness and having well-established contacts are now essential if one is to become a successful launderer. Aguilar admits that he would be hard-pressed to repeat today the time he walked into a bank on the Caribbean island of Aruba and convinced an official there that the Miami drug money he wanted to deposit in fact had been stolen by the Japanese during World War II, and had been buried in Indonesia’s Malacanang Palace for the benefit of the country’s former president Ferdinand Marcos.

There are other restrictions for launderers, Aguilar says. They have to be a lot more careful about where they choose to offload their money. Places Aguilar would not recommend launderers to approach are the Cayman Islands (“because it’s so well regulated”), Hong Kong (“the government is always looking over your shoulder”) and Andora (“as [its banking community] wants to keep your money”).

However, this need for caution on the part of the launderer belies the fact that, according to Aguilar, there has been little noticeable drop-off in the volume of dirty money being cleaned. Miami is as thick with launderers as it was in the 1980s, according to information Aguilar says he has gleaned from US police chiefs and government officers.

Also, new crime organisations with money to launder have opened up, particularly in Eastern Europe. “There are people in the offshore world and places like the UK who want this [Eastern European] money,” says a grim-faced Aguilar.

His philosophy broadly seems to be: if there is a will to launder, there is a way to launder. With millions to be earned by young professionals with good contacts in the offshore, as well as onshore, sectors from, as Aguilar fondly puts it, “the legal scheme of money management”, then it is bound to continue. As Aguilar says: “One of the biggest crimes is to let a man become a millionaire at aged 30. You live the life of a king. It’s a drug. You become a natural at it.” And he should know.