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WASHINGTON-Money laundering of Colombian drug cartel proceeds through distributors of appliances, home electronics and other products in the United States are the target of a new Customs Service initiative unveiled last Monday.

The program entails a blitz of information on businesses dealing in international trade, spotlighting the prevalence of drug cartel money laundering and how distributors could easily become a participant, however unwittingly.

An estimated $5 billion in Colombian cartel drug proceeds are laundered in the United States annually via Colombian peso brokers. Among merchandise bought in the schemes are brand-name appliances, home electronics, apparel, textiles, jewelry, cosmetics and liquor, said Fanny Kertzman, Colombia's director of revenue and Customs Service. Kertzman, who testified before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago are money-laundering hubs.

In typical scams, peso brokers act as intermediaries between drug dealers and Colombian importers, both black market and, increasingly, legitimate businesses looking to compete with low-cost illegal imports, Kertzman said. Importers in the flourishing Colombia black market place orders with brokers for products, paying them in pesos and getting a better rate of exchange than if they went through a tightly controlled government money-exchange process. The merchandise is then shipped to Colombia illegally, avoiding duties and other taxes.

Customs officials readily acknowledge the difficulty in tracing the activities of peso dealers. They figure educating businesses -- many of the money-laundering targets are small manufacturers and distributors -- can put a crimp in the black market peso-for-U.S. dollar mills.

Among the red flags to look for are payments made in cash by third-party entities with no connection to the importers.

The intricacies of laundering drug proceeds "has not been widely publicized or understood outside of the highly specialized world of federal drug money laundering investigators and drug money launderers," testified Bonni G. Tischler, assistant Customs commissioner, during a hearing before the Senate Caucus.

Customs has had some successes, including the forfeiture last year of $1 million in alleged laundered Colombian drug proceeds by a New York fabric distributor, Mandelblatt & Co., located at 251 W. 39th Street. Five officials with the company pleaded guilty to dealing with peso brokers, according to court documents. Directory assistance had no telephone number for the company or its principals.
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Author:Ramey, Joanna
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Jun 28, 1999
Next Article:U2K OR BUST.

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