Big banks getting big breaks from federal prosecutors when caught involved with drug dealing exposes a facet of the Drug War farce.
The U.S. government won convictions against 23,506 drug traffickers nationwide during 2010 sending 96 percent of those offenders to prison according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics.
Yet one of the biggest entities busted by the feds for involvement in drug trafficking last year received an unusual wrist-slap deal from federal prosecutors resulting in no prison time.
During 2010 the U.S. government won convictions against 806 involved in money laundering sending nearly 77 percent of those offenders to prison.
Yet the federal government gave the same unusual wrist-slap to the same entity also caught giving greed-blinded assistance to Mexican drug cartels by laundering billions of dollars in illegal profits.
So, what is this entity that federal prosecutors found worthy of big breaks for its laundering billions and facilitating tons of cocaine trafficking?
Meet Wachovia -- once the nation's sixth largest bank by assets" a too-big-to-fail bank that for the feds is apparently too-big-to jail.
Wachovia recently completed what amounted to a year-long probation arising from a March 2010 settlement deal with federal prosecutors who were pursuing criminal proceedings against Wachovia for its facilitating illegal money transfers from Mexico totaling $378-billion"a staggering sum that included billions traced directly to violent Mexican drug cartels.
The record $160-million fine slapped on Wachovia under terms of that settlement deal included a $50-million assessment for failing to monitor cash used to ship 22 tons of cocaine.(That fine amounted to less than two percent of the profits Wachovia made the prior year.)
Wells Fargo now owns Wachovia. Wells Fargo, federal prosecutors stress, was not involvement in the misdeeds that landed Wachovia in court where it received a deferred prosecution deal.
Wells Fargo purchased Wachovia in early 2009 for $12.7-billion, shortly after Wells Fargo received $25-billion in federal bail-out funds. That purchase helped make Wells Fargo America's second-largest bank.
Many condemn the federal government settlement with Wachovia as a farce. Criticisms come from persons in law enforcement frustrated by big-bank involvement in laundering drug money and those feeling federal drug enforcement practices provide bigger breaks to drug kingpins than low-level operators.
"All the law enforcement people wanted to see this come to trial. But no one goes to jail," said Martin Woods, an English expert on anti-money laundering whose work while with Wachovia's London office helped unravel the drug connections. Woods says Wachovia officials bashed him for his investigative diligence and whistle-blowing.
"It's simple: it you don't see the correlation between the money laundering by banks and people killed in Mexico, you're missing the point," Woods said in an April 3, 2011 article published in The Observer, a British newspaper published on Sundays.
Wachovia's involvement in that money laundering paralleled the period of a murderous escalation in violence in Mexico's Drug War that has claimed the lives of over 40,000 Mexicans since 2006 alone including politicians, prosecutors, police, soldiers, drug gang members and innocent bystanders.
During the same month last year when federal prosecutors gave Wachovia a break, finding no importance in imprisoning any bank personnel for involvement in massive drug-tainted money laundering, other federal prosecutors were pounding domestic drug dealers with long prison sentences.
For example, an Anchorage, Alaska man received a ten year term for selling four ounces of crack cocaine while an East St. Louis, Ill. businessman received a life sentence plus a $2.25-million fine for distributing three thousand pounds of cocaine between 2004 and his arrest in April 2008.
The amount of cocaine trafficking that sent the Illinois man to prison for life -- one and a half tons - was much smaller than that single 22 ton cocaine shipment referenced in the Wachovia settlement document.
The settlement agreement Wachovia officials signed with federal prosecutors in Miami last year clearly stated the bank knew that many of the transactions with Mexican financial institutions from 2004 to 2007 carried the stench of drugs.
That settlement agreement stated in part that as early as "2005 Wachovia was aware that other large US banks were exiting the [Mexican] business based on [anti-money laundering] concerns"despite these warnings, Wachovia remained in business" according to news media reports.
Wachovia reaped hefty fees from that money laundering "business' where billions in wire transfers, traveler's checks and bulk cash shipments went into Wachovia accounts from Mexican exchange facilities called casa de cambios (CDCs).
Jeffery Solman, the federal prosecutor that handled the Wachovia case, stated last year that "Wachovia's blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations."
Last year Bloomberg News in an article on the Wachovia money laundering scandal reported how the federal government cited other mega-financial institutions in the U.S. like American Express Bank International and Bank of America for complicity in laundering drug money.
Evidencing Drug War farce, none of the mega-financial institutions identified by federal authorities as involved with laundering drug money and none of the well-paid individuals at those institutions facilitating that laundering faced go-to-jail federal criminal prosecutions like small fry in the drug trade.
Days after Wachovia received it wrist-slap deal for laundering billions federal prosecutors secured a five-year sentence for a 26-year-old Johnstown, Pa. man involved with a drug ring claimed responsible for $10,000 in sells per month.
Imprisoning that Johnstown street dealer for five years will cost taxpayers $113,115 based on the average cost of $22,623 annually to house a federal prisoner. He was one of six netted during a drug crack down in that small town located in the mountains 66-miles east of Pittsburgh, Pa.
Alarming evidence of Drug War farce -- pounding small fry while giving passes to major players -- is evident in statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the federal agency that advises Congress on criminal sentencing matters.
During 2009 in the Southern Florida where Miami is located 96.1 percent of the 669 persons convicted in federal courts for drug trafficking received prison time. Twenty-percent of the persons convicted in Southern Florida federal courts for simply possessing drugs received prison time.
Of the 67 persons convicted of money laundering during 2009 in those same Southern Florida courts 77.6% went to prison, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics.
As noted in that April 2011 article in The Observer, the conclusion of the Wachovia case "was only the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating the role of the "legal" banking sector in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars -- the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other places in the world -- around their global operations, now bailed out by the taxpayer."
That Observer article included observations made in 2008 by the then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime providing evidence suggesting that drug/crime money was "the only liquid investment capital" available to banks on the brink of collapse.
"Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drug trade," the Observer article quoted the U.N. official as stating. "There were signs that some banks were rescued that way."
That June 2010 Bloomberg News article provided an ominous observation about wrist-slap protection large banks receive from criminal indictments due to a variant of the too-big-to-fail theory:
"Indicting a big bank could trigger a mad dash by investors to dump shares and cause panic in financial markets, says Jack Blum, a U.S. Senate investigator for 14 years and a consultant to international banks and brokerage firms on money laundering. The theory is like a get-out-of-jail free card for big banks, Blum says."
Another anti-money laundering expert disappointed with the federal government's settlement with Wachovia is Robert Mazur, identified in that Observer article as one of the world's "foremost figures" in providing anti-money laundering training and the point-man for US law enforcement during prosecutions against Columbian drug cartels two decades ago.
Mazur told The Observer: "the only thing that will make the banks properly vigilant to what is happening is when they hear the rattle of handcuffs in the boardroom."
Linn Washington is a weekly columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune and This Can't Be Happening. Washington writes frequently on inequities in the criminal justice system, ills in society and failings of the news media. He teaches multi-media urban journalism at Temple University.