By Parker Asmann
A new investigation says that record cocaine production in Colombia is causing criminal groups to diversify the ways in which they launder their money, reflecting the fragmented state of the country’s criminal world.
Criminal groups in Colombia are increasingly diversifying their traditional money laundering techniques involving real estate and large public works contracts, as well as new laundering methods involving cryptocurrencies and non-profit organizations, according to a report from the country’s national anti-money laundering body, the Financial Investigations and Analysis Unit (Unidad de Información y Análisis Financiero – UIAF), El Tiempo reported.
Such changes are occurring amid record cocaine production in the Andean nation.
The article reports that 40 trillion Colombian pesos (around $13 billion) of illicit money have been generated in Colombia, without specifying a time frame. Furthermore, every year 16 trillion pesos (around $5 billion) are moved through different money laundering schemes, according to the UIAF.
El Tiempo also received information that traffickers returning to Colombia and to drug-related activities after serving prison time in the United States have been increasing investment in rural properties since 2016.
The real estate boom that major urban centers like Medellín and Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá saw in the past has now moved on to smaller cities near major coca growing areas, such as Pasto in Nariño, southwest Colombia — the department with the most cocaine — and Popayán in the nearby Cauca department. Property records have grown by 300 percent in Pasto and Popayán alone, according to El Tiempo.
In 2017, Nariño department accounted for more than a quarter of the 171,000 total hectares used for coca cultivation last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The UNODC also found that the number of coca hectares in Cauca department increased by 55 percent between 2016 and 2017.
On average, each hectare of coca produces 6.9 kilograms of cocaine, with one kilogram of cocaine selling for around 5 million pesos (about $1,600) in Colombia, meaning that a single hectare of coca could produce up to 35 million pesos in illicit earnings (about $11,500), according to El Tiempo.
While there are no official reports linking the real estate boom in Nariño and Cauca with the illicit money derived from increased cocaine production, Colombia’s outgoing superintendent of Notary and Registry (Notariado y Registro), Jairo Mesa, says he has no doubt about the links between what he calls the country’s “new urbanism” and illegal drug proceeds.
The shift in money laundering techniques used by criminal groups in Colombia is likely tied to the departure of the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the increasingly fragmented criminal landscape that the guerrillas’ exit ushered in.
The more localized makeup of criminal groups in Colombia and the large profits that are coming in amid record cocaine production may help explain the diversification of money laundering techniques and the substantial uptick in property records observed in smaller municipalities in departments that are strategic to the cocaine trade, such as Nariño and Cauca.
“The Mexicans are full of cash and paying quickly for cocaine, so these more regional groups in Colombia are likely looking for places close to their centers of operation to put their money,” Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think tank, told InSight Crime.
This is in line with the historic behavior of Colombia’s most notorious drug trafficking organizations, such as the Norte del Valle, Medellín and Cali cartels, according to Douglas Farah, president of the national security consulting firm IBI Consultants.
“Colombian crime groups have traditionally loved to operate in areas where they know the terrain, have family, and know officials and their vulnerabilities,” Farah said. “As you go from large transnational groups to smaller regional groups, there’s not much protection for them in big cities.”
As Colombia’s criminal landscape continues to take shape, it appears that traffickers are adapting their money laundering strategies to best suit the current dynamics of the cocaine trade.