FinCEN Revelations | US Regulators Kept a Blind Eye as Western Banks Financed, Profited & Laundered more than $2 Trillion for Terror Networks & Drug Cartels between 1999-2017.
“Thousands of secret “suspicious activity reports” offer a never-before-seen picture of global corruption and complicity | Top US & Western Banks Including JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, Standard Chartered, Deutsche Bank, and Bank of New York Mellon Financed, Profited & Laundered for Deadly Terror Networks & Drug Cartels to the Tune of $2 Trillion between 1999-2017 | US Regulators kept a blind eye and let it flourish.”On September 20, 2020, BuzzFeed broke the FinCEN Files story. It was of a huge trove of secret government documents that reveal for the first time how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions, enriching themselves and their shareholders while facilitating the work of terrorists, kleptocrats, and drug kingpins.
And the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.
The FinCEN Files reveal thousands of “suspicious activity reports” and other US government documents — offer an unprecedented view of global financial corruption, the banks enabling it, and the government agencies that watch as it flourishes. BuzzFeed News has shared these reports with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 news organizations in 88 countries.
These documents, compiled by banks, shared with the government, but kept from public view, expose the hollowness of banking safeguards, and the ease with which criminals have exploited them. Profits from deadly drug wars, fortunes embezzled from developing countries, and hard-earned savings stolen in a Ponzi scheme were all allowed to flow into and out of these financial institutions, despite warnings from the banks’ own employees.
Money laundering is a crime that makes other crimes possible. It can accelerate economic inequality, drain public funds, undermine democracy, and destabilize nations — and the banks play a key role. “Some of these people in those crisp white shirts in their sharp suits are feeding off the tragedy of people dying all over the world,” said Martin Woods, a former suspicious transactions investigator for Wachovia.
Laws that were meant to stop financial crime have instead allowed it to flourish. So long as a bank files a notice that it may be facilitating criminal activity, it all but immunizes itself and its executives from criminal prosecution. The suspicious activity alert effectively gives them a free pass to keep moving the money and collecting the fees.
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, is the agency within the Treasury Department charged with combating money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financial crimes. It collects millions of these suspicious activity reports, known as SARs. It makes them available to US law enforcement agencies and other nations’ financial intelligence operations. It even compiles a report called “Kleptocracy Weekly” that summarizes the dealings of foreign leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What it does not do is force the banks to shut the money laundering down.
In the rare instances when the US government does crack down on banks, it often relies on sweetheart deals called deferred prosecution agreements, which include fines but no high-level arrests. The Trump administration has made it even harder to hold executives personally accountable, under guidance by former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein that warned government agencies against “piling on.”
But the FinCEN Files investigation shows that even after they were prosecuted or fined for financial misconduct, banks such as JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, Standard Chartered, Deutsche Bank, and Bank of New York Mellon continued to move money for suspected criminals.
Suspicious payments flow around the world and into countless industries, from international sports to Hollywood entertainment to luxury real estate to Nobu sushi restaurants. They filter into the companies that make familiar items from people’s lives, from the gas in their car to the granola in their cereal bowl.
The FinCEN Files expose an underlying truth of the modern era: The networks through which dirty money traverse the world have become vital arteries of the global economy. They enable a shadow financial system so wide-ranging and so unchecked that it has become inextricable from the so-called legitimate economy. Banks with household names have helped to make it so.
BuzzFeed News’ investigation shows that:
- Standard Chartered moved money on behalf of Al Zarooni Exchange, a Dubai-based business that was later accused of laundering cash on behalf of the Taliban. During the years that Al Zarooni was a Standard Chartered customer, Taliban militants staged violent attacks that killed civilians and soldiers.
- HSBC’s Hong Kong branch allowed WCM777, a Ponzi scheme, to move more than $15 million even as the business was being barred from operating in three states. Authorities say the scam stole at least $80 million from investors, mainly Latino and Asian immigrants, and the company’s owner used the looted funds to buy two golf courses, a 7,000-square-foot mansion, a 39.8-carat diamond, and mining rights in Sierra Leone.
- Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, American Express, and others collectively processed millions of dollars in transactions for the family of Viktor Khrapunov, the former mayor of Kazakhstan’s most populous city, even after Interpol issued a Red Notice for his arrest. Khrapunov, who had already fled to Switzerland and who claims the allegations are politically motivated, was later convicted in absentia on charges that included bribe-taking and defrauding the city through the sale of public property.
The banks mentioned in this story said they could not comment on specific transactions due to bank secrecy laws. Their statements can be found here.
By law, banks must file suspicious activity reports when they spot transactions that bear the hallmarks of money laundering or other financial misconduct, such as large, round-number transactions or payments between companies with no discernible business relationship. SARs are not by themselves evidence of a crime, but FinCEN’s director, Kenneth Blanco, has called them “vital for law enforcement investigations.”
“Prior to this reporting, very few SARs had ever been revealed. The FinCEN Files encompass more than 2,100.”
Information from millions of these documents feeds into a single database, through which law enforcement officers can summon detailed financial information with a few keystrokes. The FinCEN Files opens a rare window into this vast system of financial intelligence, unmatched in the world but all but unknown to the public. The SARs themselves are so closely held that members of the public cannot obtain them through records requests or subpoenas, and banks are not allowed even to confirm their existence.
Prior to this reporting, very few SARs had ever been revealed. The FinCEN Files encompass more than 2,100.
For more than a year, BuzzFeed News and its partner news organizations across the world mined the information on these tens of thousands of pages to map more than 200,000 transactions. (Here’s an explanation of how we did it.) In all, suspicious activity reports in the FinCEN Files flagged more than $2 trillion in transactions between 1999 and 2017. Western banks could have blocked almost any of them, but in most cases they kept the money moving and kept collecting their fees.
Suspicious activity reports are written by the banks’ financial crime watchdogs, or compliance officers, who are often parked in remote offices and left to make sense of a vast number of transactions with very few resources, writing SARs with little research or verification. BuzzFeed News’ research went much further, including reams of internal bank data, thousands of pages of public records, hundreds of interviews with sources across the globe, dozens of Freedom of Information Act filings, five public records lawsuits, and requests for three federal courts to unseal records — all to piece together the intricacies of a financial system that is largely hidden.
BuzzFeed News is not publishing the SARs in full because they contain information about people or companies that are not under suspicion, but who were swept up in the banks’ searches. A subset of the documents is being published, with redactions, to support reporting in specific stories.
After the Treasury Department received detailed questions about the FinCEN Files investigation, the agency released a statement saying that it was “aware that various media outlets intend to publish a series of articles based on unlawfully disclosed Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs).” It continued, “the unauthorized disclosure of SARs is a crime that can impact the national security of the United States, compromise law enforcement investigations, and threaten the safety and security of the institutions and individuals who file such reports.” The agency announced that it was referring the matter to the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General.
In a subsequent letter, FinCEN’s general counsel said that disclosure of SARs can make banks less willing to file them, which “could mean law enforcement has fewer potential leads to stop crimes like human trafficking, child exploitation, fraud, corruption, terrorism, and cyber-enabled crime.”
FinCEN did not respond to repeated invitations to discuss security concerns.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which requested some of these SARs, said the FinCEN Files investigation “reinforces the fact that we now have two systems of law enforcement and justice in the country.” Drug cartels move millions through US banks; poor people go to jail for possession. “If you’re wealthy and well-connected, you can figure out how to do an enormous amount of harm to society at large and ensure that it accrues to enormous financial benefit for all of you.”
Robert Mazur, a former federal special agent and an expert in money laundering, said that making this material public “could enhance national security, aid future investigations, and encourage institutions to more consistently adhere to SAR filing requirements,” and “will hopefully get people who are in a position of power to correct an apparent systemic failure.”