• News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment
America's Drug Wars
 Story | Photography | Read Others' Stories |

page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

Money is Heavy
Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York, is the financial capital of the drug trade in the Northeast. Small shops, convenience stores, and travel agencies cater to the drug trade.

"It is really one-stop shopping. You can purchase minutes on a cellular phone. You could buy a beeper," says Chris Amnirati, a customs agent with the El-Dorado task force, a joint operation of customs, the IRS, and 16 other agencies working to take the profits out of the drug trade. Roosevelt Avenue is his beat.

"You could walk in here and make international phone calls and set up your drug deal and get instructions from the cartel leader in South America who will then tell you what to do with the money. Wire transfer it. He will tell you who to drop off the money to, what code, where to take it. Like I say, this is the hub."

The task force has seized millions of dollars, made hundreds of arrests on Roosevelt Avenue over the past eight years—but for major drug cartels, it is just the price of doing business, says Raymond Baker, who studies patterns of laundering drug money.

"There is no indication that their profit margins have been hurt," says Baker. "The price of drugs seems to have gone down on the street, so apparently they are able to absorb that and at the same time lower their prices. That comes pretty close to the definition of not working."

In the end, the drug business is really about money. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates drug sales in the United States top $57 billion dollars a year. U.S. law enforcement only seizes about 1 percent of that. The rest is deposited in well disguised bank accounts, and that is what is called money laundering. It has taken 20 years to put this sophisticated system in place. In the early days of the drug war, the drug business was strictly cash.

"It became more of a problem to count the money and stack it," says George Jung, who smuggled tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1970s and 80s. "It took hours upon hours and hours to recount it and go over and over it again. It was tedious as hell. You know, it started to take the fun out of the whole thing, believe it or not."

Money is heavy. You need a full-size Samsonite suitcase to stash a half a million dollars in 20-dollar bills. John Hensley tracked drug money for the U.S. Customs service in the early 1980s.

"The biggest seizure I've ever participated in directly, here in Miami, it was $22 million in cash and it weighed a ton," says Hensley. "And that becomes problematic for drug organizations—what do you do with 22 million that's over a ton and fills probably twenty good-sized dining room tables?"

Small bills are a problem. Mike MacDonald, a former IRS agent recalls an undercover operation and a crack dealer.

"The guy calls my undercover agent and says, 'I got a question. I got a problem. I've got $1 million in one-dollar bills. What do you suggest?' And my agent calmly said, 'I would suggest you put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger.' What are you going to do? Nobody wants a million in ones."

Next: The War Against Drug Profits >

 ©2018 American Public Media