Money laundering was a major focus of U.S. counterterrorism policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Patriot Act of 2002 included provisions that required the Treasury Department to identify banks and individuals suspected of links to terrorism. And the law instructed banks to strictly monitor and report potentially illegal transactions.
But a string of august names in global banking — Credit Suisse, Lloyds Bank, ABN Amro, ING Bank and now HSBC — have reached settlements in the past couple of years with the U.S. government for billions of dollars in tainted transactions. These investigations have revealed that weaknesses in the financial system lay not with the so-called hawala brokers of Karachi, Pakistan, but the bespoke bankers of London, Amsterdam and Geneva, and their American affiliates.
“HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight — and worse — that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through HSBC subsidiaries, and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said at a news conference in New York on Tuesday.
One of the world’s largest banks, HSBC has its headquarters in London and $2.5 trillion in assets. It earned nearly $22 billion in profits in 2011.
Breuer said that between 2006 and 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, the Norte del Valle Cartel in Colombia and other drug traffickers laundered at least $881 million in illegal narcotics trafficking proceeds through HSBC.
“These traffickers didn’t have to try very hard,” Breuer said. “They would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows.”
The illicit money was submerged in the billions of dollars of transfers that flowed between HSBC’s Mexican and American affiliates. In many cases, the illicit cash was generated by drug sales in American cities, smuggled to Mexico and deposited at HSBC there. Then it was wired back to an account at HSBC in the United States as clean money. In other cases, bulk cash was deposited and converted into local currency, a process called the Black Market Peso Exchange by investigators.
Stuart Gulliver, HSBC’s group chief executive, said the bank “is a fundamentally different organization from the one that made those mistakes.”
“We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again,” Gulliver said in a statement. “Over the last two years, under new senior leadership, we have been taking concrete steps to put right what went wrong and to participate actively with government authorities in bringing to light and addressing these matters.”