A government Web site on this tiny Caribbean island has tried to attract offshore investors by bragging that Antigua is bucking moves elsewhere "toward greater disclosure" of financial information. "The emphasis on non-disclosure provides a high comfort level," it said.
The neighboring island of Nevis promises that companies set up on its territory need file "no annual return or accounts." Anguilla's Web site said companies can incorporate there in just 24 hours, while Dominica boasted of the "absence of tax treaties or exchange agreements with any other country."
The small islands of the eastern Caribbean are aggressively trying to expand their offshore financial industries by making it even easier for investors to keep their business secret. Several are promoting the ultimate in anonymity: They will sell citizenship along with the right to a new name on a new passport.
The trend is arousing growing concern among U.S., British and other international law enforcement agencies, which say the new policies are attracting more money from drug trafficking and other criminal activities. One senior U.S. official said that small countries like Dominica and Grenada, by offering both strict bank secrecy and the easy change of identities, are creating havens for "one-stop shopping" for international criminals.
"The growing use of offshore financial centers and economic citizenships for criminal purposes pose a significant threat to the United States," Jonathan Winer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement, said in an interview.
The trend has been especially enticing to Russians, a growing number of whom are visiting the region. A March report by the State Department said the island of Dominica had greatly expanded its offshore services in the past two years and "between 200 and 300 Russians have reportedly purchased citizenship, increasing suspicions of Russian money laundering activities on the island."
The move to the eastern Caribbean has accelerated as such traditional financial havens as Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein have grudgingly yielded to international pressure to open their books to authorities under certain conditions. In response, many organized crime syndicates are seeking less scrutinized locations for their money, according to U.S. and European law enforcement officials.
The eastern Caribbean is eager to find new sources of business because it has been in an economic slump in recent years, partly because its traditional industries of banana growing and tourism have languished. Experts report the region is getting a healthy share of an expanding flow of money into offshore accounts.
A recent International Monetary Fund study estimated that the amount of money in offshore havens around the world had grown from $3.5 trillion in 1992 to $4.8 trillion in 1997. Other experts say the amount of money offshore, licit and illicit, now totals about $8 trillion.
About a third of the money is believed to be in the 17 Caribbean offshore centers: Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, the Netherlands Antilles, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Much of the offshore money belongs to large companies and reputable financial institutions, and much of it is placed legally by people or companies seeking to protect assets that might otherwise be vulnerable to higher taxes or lawsuits. But law enforcement experts in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean say the offshore sector is attracting more money derived from the sale of drugs, weapons or white-collar fraud schemes that generate hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Regional experts, while acknowledging that such estimates are inexact, said that one-third to one-half of the offshore money in the Caribbean is the fruit of criminal activities.
"There is no honest reason for being offshore," said Jack Blum, a money laundering expert who studies offshore havens. "Bank secrecy and the offshore money industry have no place in a globalized economy."
The offshore banks and companies have come under recent scrutiny as U.S. and European enforcement officials probe allegations of Russian financial corruption. In the high-profile inquiry into transfers of billions of dollars from Russia through the Bank of New York, evidence suggests significant amounts of the money passed through offshore accounts in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Also, some passed through international business corporations or IBCs, shell companies designed to make the true owners impossible to identify.
Offshore banks accept money only from outside the country in which they are located. Earnings on such accounts are not taxed and often are not even reported. The host countries earn millions of dollars from annual licensing fees to the banks and businesses registered in their jurisdiction.
Banking and law enforcement officials said the countries attract business by making it a crime to divulge any information about the ownership of banks, depositors or shareholders in offshore businesses.
After money obtained from illicit transactions is deposited in a bank or moved through a company offshore, it can easily be disguised as a legitimate business transaction and moved into the legal economy, thus "laundering" it -- hiding its illegal origin.
Many of the countries also now allow IBCs to be formed with stock in the form of "bearer shares," a system under which the person in possession of a share is its owner and the names of a company's shareholders are never registered. This makes it virtually impossible for anyone to learn the identity of the owner.
On most of the islands here, a few lawyers are the nominal shareholders of hundreds, or even thousands of IBCs. Divulging who the real owner is, in many places, is now a crime. One banker on this island said he incorporated 12,000 IBCs in the past two years.
And many offshore banks operate as several do in a strip mall here -- as one-room outfits with one or two employees and a computer. The banks almost never actually have any money because the cash moves in and out of accounts electronically.
The growth in the sector is driving the Clinton administration, Britain, the United Nations and international financial institutions to try to impose standardized regulations on the jurisdictions and to move toward eliminating offshore havens entirely.
Eastern Caribbean nations say new regulations, comparable to those in most European tax havens, would place them at a competitive disadvantage. A senior British official said that attitude is "extremely unhelpful."
"Britain wants global standards," the official said.
But regional leaders say the pressure is hypocritical because Britain allows offshore banking on the Isle of Man and many U.S. companies and banks have offshore subsidiaries, branches or other components.
"The United States is determined to keep us out of the capital markets," said Lionel A. Hurst, Antigua's ambassador to Washington. "We need to diversify out of tourism and agriculture, but if enough of us compete for capital flight money that now goes to New York, it will make a difference in the financial market, and the United States is fearful of that."
James Johnson, the Treasury Department's undersecretary of enforcement, disagreed, saying the pressure is being applied because some countries of the Caribbean are making it "easier rather than harder to launder money" and that "extreme bank secrecy hinders our ability to get at the financial underpinnings of organized criminal groups."
One financial crime case involving offshore banking was known as Operation Risky Business. Customs agents and the FBI obtained convictions in a massive, U.S.-based fraud scheme for which the perpetrators set up a bank in Antigua specifically to hide the money.
U.S. investigators say $60 million is a conservative estimate of how much money was taken in the scheme. In it, would-be entrepreneurs paid "processing fees" ranging from $40,000 to $2 million to get access to venture capital investment funds that never materialized.
According to an indictment issued last year, William W. Cooper, a U.S. resident of Antigua "established and incorporated the Caribbean American Bank in St. John's, Antigua" on Sept. 13, 1994. The sole purpose of the bank, according to Mickey Pledger, the Customs agent who worked the case, was to move and hide money from the sophisticated "advance fee" fraud.
"Antigua was chosen by the scammers because of its reputation as a tax haven and bank secrecy country as well as because of relationships the scammers had with government officials in Antigua," said a Customs statement.
According to court documents, a group of several hundred people led by Donald Gamble and Lawrence G. Sangaree placed advertisements in U.S. publications offering investment and venture capital loans. Gamble, Sanagree and several others were convicted last year in the case.
Cooper, a well-known figure here, was indicted, but the initial extradition request was denied by Antigua. In an interview, Cooper denied any wrongdoing.
Despite the convictions, Risky Business is an ongoing case, hampered by the lack of access to Antiguan bank records, Pledger said. "We are still trying to get the rest of the records from Antigua, but it has been several years now, and we have only gotten some of what we asked for."