Mexican drug cartels are expanding their presence in the United States far beyond the border states that have traditionally been their home, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.
Instead of using unaffiliated middlemen to transfer and sell drugs in the US interior, inner circle cartel members are now being assigned to run drug distribution in “at least nine non-border states” in the Midwest, South, and Northeast of the country, according to AP.
While the cartel presence is an old problem along the US southern border, suspects with strong cartel links have lately been seen in new regions. Direct cartel involvement has been on the rise in Chicago, Atlanta, rural North Carolina, Indiana and Pennsylvania. That Chicago -- a city more than 1000 miles from the US-Mexico border -- recently named the infamous Sinaloa cartel kingpin public enemy number one is illustrative of the far reach of Mexican drug syndicates.
The chance to increase profits drives this change, according to the AP's investigation. The middlemen who formerly sold drugs on behalf of the cartels became unnecessary, and the cartels sought to exert the same level of control in the rest of the US as they do along the Mexico border, the AP investigation found.
Not everyone is convinced that the threat is as severe as portrayed: empirical evidence to support the claim that cartels are taking over direct control of their interior US operations is lacking, and individuals should be “very cautious about the assumptions [they] make,” an expert on US-Mexico relations at the University of San Diego told AP.
US Drug Enforcement Agency data on cartel presence in US cities has showed a marked increase. Approximately 230 communities reported cartel activity in 2008; that number jumped to over 1,200 in 2011. However, while the numbers may suggest drastic growth, the increase is at least partly due to better reporting practices.
A New York doctor, his office manager, and 46 others were arrested last week after an investigation into drug trafficking worth $10 million, according to a press release by the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Also among those arrested were the ringleaders of two drug trafficking networks in the state of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Hector Castro and his office manager, Patricia Valera, were indicted and arrested in connection with drug trafficking across the states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The two are charged separately because Castro and Valera are accused of running simultaneous, but unrelated, drug trafficking schemes out of the same office. Castro is charged with selling 39 illegal prescriptions, while Valera faces 464 charges for the alleged theft of over 150 prescription sheets bearing Castro’s name.
The investigation alleges that pharmacies in New York and New Jersey doled out over 500,000 oxycodone pills based on prescriptions from Castro and Valera’s office between 2009 and 2013. The schemes were originally able to elude suspicion because so many of the prescriptions were being filled outside of New York State; The New York State Department of Health cannot track prescriptions filled out-of-state.
Castro was arrested after an undercover investigation sparked by the overdose death of an individual in possession of a prescription bearing Castro’s name. A lengthy investigation determined that traffickers were visiting Castro’s office and obtaining prescriptions from him. An undercover agent infiltrated a drug trafficking organization receiving prescriptions from Castro and allegedly bought 28 prescriptions from the doctor. According to ICE, the drug traffickers would text Castro the names and dates of birth of the people for which prescriptions were to be made out, tand the doctor obliged.
Valera allegedly did business with the leaders of two rival drug trafficking groups in Pennsylvania. Valera stole blank prescription sheets from Castro, forged prescriptions, and then sold them for around $500 each, according to ICE. As in Castro’s operation, the organized crime groups provided Valera with names birth dates to fill in, and would either pick up the forged prescriptions or would have them delivered. In Valera’s case, long-term provided the information that led to his arrest.
Between the two operations, authorities estimate Castro and Valera sold a combined $10 million in oxycodone prescriptions. ICE did not elaborate on Castro’s use of his illegal cash flow, but suggested that Valera and her husband, who was also involved and arrested in connection with the investigation, used their proceeds for lavish vacations to Cancun, the Dominican Republic, Florida, France and Italy.
A multinational operation arrested 44 members of an organized crime syndicate responsible forcredit card fraud which affected approximately 36,000 individuals across 16 European countries,according to a Europol press release.
The crime group stole credit card information using manipulated point of sale (POS) terminals-- the machines where credit cards are swiped in. Card reading software was implanted intothe POS terminals, and members of the crime group then created counterfeit credit cards withthe stolen information. The thieves then targeted major European shopping malls, according toEuropol.
Police conducted 82 house searches in Romania and the UK, and closed down two illegalworkshops where POS manipulation devices were produced. Counterfeit cards, stolenelectronic data, and cash were also seized during the course of the operation.
OperationPandora-Storm as the action was dubbed involved 20 law enforcement agenciesfrom Europe, North America, and Australia. The investigation was headed by the RomanianCybercrime Unit and a specialized Organized Crime Division of the Prosecutor’s Office.Europol’s European Cybercrime Center contributed analysis and coordination assistance to theinvestigation. The final arrests involved over 400 police officers, a Romanian command center inBucharest, and support from Europol headquarters in The Hague.
In its Serious Organized Crime Assessment (SOCTA) published in March 2013, the EUhighlighted the threat posed by organized crime diversification. Among the threats mentionedin the report was a rise in organized electronic crime, including credit card fraud. The reportestimated that organized crime groups earn $1.9 billion from credit card fraud alone. the low-riskhigh-reward nature of cybercrime contributes to its popularity, the report concluded. The reportalso warned that as mobile payments and the use of near field communication expand, theyprovide “new opportunities for data theft and fraud.”
Troels Oerting, Head of European Cybercrime Center echoed the report’s statements. He praised the success of Operation Pandora-Storm, saying it was an “example of excellent policework and flawless cooperation,” but added that the in the future “cybercrime will become a greatchallenge for the [law enforcement] community.”
Transparency International has joined with European football associations to tackle the issue of match fixing, the organizations said in a joint press release on Wednesday.
The aim of the project, called Staying on Side, is to create educational and preventative programs that target players and officials, and can be used by football leagues throughout Europe. The project will focus on providing educational materials to young players in a workshop setting, Sylvia Schenk, Senior Advisor for Sport at Transparency International told OCCRP. These materials present scenarios involving questionable ethics related to match fixing, and then players discuss and decide on the best course of action as a group.
The Association of European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) and the German Football League (DFL), TI’s partners in the venture, encompass a large majority of professional football in Europe. Their membership includes 29 leagues, including the English, German, Spanish, French, and Italian domestic leagues.
A February announcement by Europol of a major match-fixing ring with ties to organized crime highlighted the continued threat match fixing poses. That investigation found over 380 match-fixing attempts, including high profile matches in World Cup qualifying and the UEFA Champions League, as well as various domestic league matches throughout Europe. Over 400 players, officials and criminals are suspects in the schemes. Betting profits for the organized crime group exceeded $10 million. At the time, Europol Director Rob Wainwright expressed concern that “illegal profits are made on a scale that threatens the very fabric of the game.”
Schenk echoed Wainwright’s concerns, saying that when it comes to match fixing, “quite often organized crime is involved.” The crime can be linked to blackmailing, among other illicit activities, Schenk said.
Staying on Side is based on a plan presented by TI to the European Union earlier in 2012 after calls by the European Commission for innovations in the fight against match fixing. The plan has roots in a similar joint venture in Germany between Transparency Germany and the domestic league. In that program, players were interested, coaches learned a lot, and the youth program officals welcomed Transparency’s initiatives, Schenk said.
The EPFL has also taken steps to tackle match fixing. In October of 2010 it enacted a code of conduct regarding match fixing, and called on members to “adopt appropriate legislation to protect the integrity of football.” The integrity of the game is a central aspect of Staying on Side’s message to the youth players it targets as well. “We tell them the game is about fair play and the uncertainty of the result,” Schenk said. “Match fixing destroys football.”
Croatian National Police dismantled a counterfeit currency print shop, seized over $US230,000 worth of counterfeit Euro notes, and arrested 18 members of an organized crime group on Tuesday, according to a press release by Europol.
The arrests in Zagreb took a dangerous turn when a suspect threatened to use a grenade; police successfully disarmed the man before the weapon detonated. No police officers were injured. Over 150 police officers were involved in five Croatian cities, with the actual print shop located in Bjelovar, a city 40 miles east of the Croatian capital.
Police seized 3,600 counterfeit 50 Euro bills and counterfeit note production equipment. Sixty-three uncut pages of 50 British pound notes were also seized. The raids apprehended every member of the organized crime group “from the top down,” according to Europol. The counterfeit currency printed by the crime group circulated in multiple EU member states, and was detected in Austria, Italy and Slovenia.
In December 2012, the agency helped dismantle a similar print shop in Peru. Counterfeit notes were 4.4 million euros and 4.4 million dollars were seized. That operation was conducted by Peruvian police, Europol and the US Secret Service. In February, Europol aided in a similar operation in Portugal, where $38,000 worth of counterfeit Euro bills were recovered and five were arrested. Printers, stamping dies, holograms, and inks used for counterfeiting were also confiscated.
Citigroup became the latest in a series of major banks to be reprimanded for failing to adhere to US banking legislation. The US Federal Reserve censured the firm for weak money laundering controls and failure to comply with US regulations. The Reserve cited subpar compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act, a key US law governing reporting of suspicious transfers.
Banks and other financial institutions are required under US law to report any transaction over $10,000. They also must monitor and inform authorities of suspicious activity by individuals attempting to avoid detection. The Federal Reserve said that Citigroup “lacked effective systems of governance and internal controls”, noting that Citigroup had failed to “adequately oversee” its banks’ anti-money laundering (AML) programs.
US law states that the actions of a financial institution that conducts business in the US, as well as those of its foreign and domestic subsidiaries, are subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and US money-laundering legislation. For a transnational giant like Citigroup, this means effectively overseeing every bank and financial institution it operates globally.
Foreign operations of banks have come under increased scrutiny in the US in the past year, and Citigroup has good reason to adhere to the Federal Reserve’s demands: failure to do so could cost the firm billions. In January, JP Morgan Chase was cited for its weak money laundering protections. HSBC paid $1.9 billion in December 2012 after the Justice Department determined the bank had laundered over $850 for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.
Citigroup has two months to submit a comprehensive plan to improve oversight of its operations, and three months to submit a company-wide BSA/AML compliance program. The report will include recommendations on improving the structure and operation of its compliance program. Citigroup must submit a final plan, based on the BSA/AML Report and its recommendations, within four months.
Seven men, including six Croatians and one Serbian citizen, were charged in connection with a forgery scheme which produced passports for mobsters connected to Balkan organized crime, including the infamous Zemun clan, according to a press release by Croatia’s Bureau for Combating Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK). The accused are charged with conspiracy to commit criminal acts, abuse of office, forgery and providing incentives for misconduct in office. Those indicted include Croatian civil servants responsible for the issuance of passports and monitoring of civilian identity databases, as well as police officers.
The successful forgeries required an understanding of the weaknesses and loopholes in passport distribution; infiltration of key civil servant positions was central to the group’s ability to avoid detection for years. The criminals had access to a government database of citizens’ personal data, and used this database to identify individuals in Croatia who did not have passports. These identities were then stolen.
A power-of-attorney form was forged so that sensitive documents, including birth certificates, citizenship documents and proof-of-residency papers could be accessed. These documents would be used to forge resident ID cards in either Bosnia or Serbia using the victims’ names, but the clients’ photos. These forged ID cards would be taken to Croatian consulates in Bosnia and Serbia, where accomplices working at the consulates would approve requests for new passports. The clients would walk away with functional passports bearing their photo, but someone else’s information.
The forged passports cost over $12,000 apiece; clients paid half up front and half upon completion. The scheme, which authorities say was in effect at least between 2006 and 2010, made the forgers over $870,000.
A multi-agency Australian task force arrested six individuals in connection with an international methamphetamine smuggling ring, seizing millions of dollars in cash and drugs and impounding a Lamborghini in the process, according to a press release by Victoria Police.
Police seized over 42 kg of drugs, more than $9 million in cash and residential property, over $600,000 in poker chips, and the Lamborghini, in 37 separate searches which took place on March 20-22. The six who were arrested face a number of charges related to drug smuggling and money laundering, most notably trafficking a commercial quantity of drugs; if convicted, the accused could face life in prison.
The searches and arrests marked the latest success of a multi-national operation against a transnational trafficking group. The operation, code-named Volante, has seen a total of 26 individuals arrested since it began in April 2012.
Methamphetamine (also known as Ice) is extremely popular in Australia, and authorities have been clamping down on increased trafficking of the drug. In March, the Australian Federal Police seized a record 568 kg of the drug in the culmination of another long-term interagency operation. “Ice availability has been increasing” in Australia recently, but authorities expect that continued arrests will “dramatically affect that availability,” according to Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australian Tax Office, Australian Crime Commission and Victoria Police cooperated in a special domestic task force. Law enforcement agencies from China, Macau, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Hong Kong were involved in the investigation. The global nature of the crime and the investigation “shows how successful joint partnerships are in combating organized crime groups,” AFP Manager for Serious and Organized Crime David Sharpe said.
Operation Volante is ongoing, and further arrests are expected both in Australia and abroad, according to Victoria police.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was formally placed under investigation Thursday for alleged illegal campaign financing during his 2007 campaign, AFP reported Friday.
The preliminary investigation will examine accusations that Sarkozy received improper campaign contributions from the world’s richest woman, Lillianne Bettencourt. At the time of Sarkozy’s campaign, Bettencourt was 84 years old and suffering from dementia.
The probe into Sarkozy’s campaign funds began in September of 2011 while he was still president, according to news reports. The former president was first questioned in November regarding statements made by Bettencourt’s former accountant. .
After 12 hours of questioning, authorities said they’ had decided not to pursue a formal investigation against Sarkozy, but in June of 2012, two months after Sarkozy was defeated in his bid for another term as president, police raided his home and office for further evidence, according to his lawyer, Thierry Herzog.
Nearly a dozen people in Sarkozy’s circle are under investigation in the Bettencourt case, the Economist reported. But this is the first time France’s former president himself became a formal suspect.
Herzog has said that he intends to appeal the ruling.
Environmental crime is an increasingly popular activity for specialized organized crime groups, according to a Europol report.
Illicit waste trafficking and trafficking in endangered species were both mentioned in Europol’s Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment. Crime groups are attracted to environmental crime due to its low-risk, high-reward nature.
The economic downturn has seen unscrupulous businesses have turned to organized crime to dispose of their waste. For the crime groups, who do not abide by regulatory standards for waste transport or disposal, the deals are extremely lucrative. Waste is trafficked through the European Union to ports, where it is then sent mostly to Africa and Asia for disposal. Waste trafficking has serious consequences that can damage public health. Long-term damage can sometimes necessitate costly clean-up efforts, the report said.
Specialized crime groups have also become involved in trafficking in endangered species, Europol said. This claim is echoed by a report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which claims that elephant poaching levels are at their highest point in a decade, with 2011 being the “worst year ever for large ivory seizures.” Organized crime groups are also involved in great ape trafficking, according to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). Great apes are explicitly protected as endangered species under CITES. UNEP estimates over 3,000 great apes are lost to trafficking annually.