Following Dirty Money


As my plane soared above the Himalayas on exit from Kathmandu, I tried to think what I had achieved or learned from the previous unique week of mingling among the world of money minders. First, I was proud to have walked out of a rowdy, smoke-filled casino, un-diverted by the professional gamblers and Bollywood style belly dancers, with triple the amount of money I walked in with on my first and probably last stab at the roulette wheel ($50!). But more importantly, I learned that the world of financial crime investigators –the people chasing gangsters and terrorists by following their monetary foot steps—experience the same challenge that many other crime busters do: they often work alone.


2015 APG Typologies and Capacity Building Workshop Photo: APG

Over and over, during the “Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering Typologies Workshop” attended by 300 government officers and bankers from all over the world, I heard people stress how they need to collaborate much more in order to beat organized criminal gangs (“OCGs”), including terrorists. I was new to this crowd, but that mantra sounded familiar. I found myself sitting next to the delegation from North Korea, thinking that not only does the world of anti-money laundering have some things in common with the counter trafficking world, it is also a really fascinating world in itself. There are these things called “Financial Intelligence Units” or “FIUs” that nearly every government –even North Korea—has or is forming. And they work closely with commercial bankers to make sure the banks are not providing financial services to ISIS or drug dealers or anyone else who is washing dirty money. But apparently, few people know that these FIUs even exist. In fact, too rarely do police, Customs or other investigators call on FIUs to team up to follow the financial trail of a crime to the person or organization that funded it. And until this week’s meeting, virtually none of the FIUs had been informed about the seriousness of wildlife crime, and who was funding it, fighting it, and how badly they are needed to help stop it.

I was surprised. I had assumed that dirty money busters were linked up and exchanging data by the hour around the world. As we broke after day 1, I took my new insights into this world and re-worked my presentations to help make a more convincing case for FIUs and wildlife protectors to team up. Would they listen? These people are clearly very busy already, I thought.

As so often happens, some seemingly random thought came to mind. It was a visual actually. Weeks before I was inCyprus to see Freeland’s Onkuri Majumdar give a TED talk on wildlife crime. Unsurprisingly, she wowed the large audience with her genuine charm, intellect and passion for the subject, so we celebrated afterwards by quickly touring the beautiful island that is famous for its historic sites. One of the places we stopped to see was the remains of a Neolithic village on the side of a hill. I stood there looking at the circular rock formations that represented house walls constructed 12,000 years ago. The walls of one house were built extremely close to the other houses. They were clusters. According to the brochure we were given, the people here had domesticated animals. I tried to picture it all. Must have been crowded. Perhaps it was an extended family or set of families living together, but in any case, they had chosen to stick very closely together. I read the signs posted next to the site, looking for more of an explanation, hoping to see some analysis of humans as social creatures. Instead the signage told me more about the archeologists who had discovered the site. But one thing was obvious: the people who had lived on this hillside chose to be a team in order to survive.

Neolithic settlement of Choirokoitia in Cyprus

Neolithic settlement of Choirokoitia in Cyprus


Replica of Neolithic settlement in Cyprus

Back in my Kathmandu hotel room, I felt a renewed sense of energy as I re-worked my powerpoint slides and videos. Perhaps we naturally are team players when survival is at stake. The next day, I and several other invited “subject matter experts” drove home the point that criminals are running circles around wildlife conservationists and driving many species toward extinction, literally making a killing and laughing all the way to the bank. “We need your help,” I pleaded. We engaged the FIUs and bankers in discussions for 3 days.

Delegates at the 2015 APG Typologies and Capacity Buildling Workshop Opening Ceremony Photo: APA

Delegates at the 2015 APG Typologies and Capacity Building Workshop Opening Ceremony Photo: APG

Thanks to the organizers (“APG”, American Bar Association and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), part of the world of FIUs and banks now know that a ton of dirty money is being generated and laundered by commercial wildlife poachers and traffickers. Understandably, the APG members were mostly focused on terrorism. In fact the Paris attacks occurred just days before our meeting started. So the questions that came to us, as wildlife trafficking experts, were geared more toward finding out if terrorists were trading elephant ivory or rhino horn to fund their activities. We told them that there is some evidence to this effect, but not a lot. It was not easy to keep everyone’s undivided attention after that revelation and some earthquake tremors that shook the roof of our meeting, but it was all a good start. A few of the FIUs and banks said they were ready to help.

Think about how badly such help is needed. Take the elephant ivory trade for example. Southeast Asia’s ivory trade investigations (see earlier journal entries) are “ongoing”, with zero apparent progress in finding the kingpins, just like so many criminal wildlife cases we monitor and support. The problem in most cases is that the investigation teams lack money or capacity to carry out complex inquiries into organized crime groups. Sometimes the bosses don’t see it is a major crime and close cases after the seizures. In other cases, someone is paying off the investigators. We need to fix this. In the last 14 years I have watched umpteen metric tons of ivory, the remains of thousands of poached elephants, get seized by authorities in Southeast Asia, and yet I have never seen one kingpin behind the illegal imports identified and arrested. Think about that. Every time several thousand kilos of tusks get seized, all you see in the media are the tusks and the officers who seized them standing proudly behind them. The journalists show up, take photos of the officers and their spoils, while a few forensics CSI type folks walk around with white plastic gloves, taking samples. A few quotes about how “we will get whoever is behind this.” And yet nobody gets arrested. Story dies until the next seizure.

You would never see enforcement officers standing behind a table of seized drugs or weapons used by terrorists, smiling with pride if there were no drug dealer or terrorist caught too. We need to follow the dirty money trail associated with wildlife seizures to find out who sponsored the death and destruction. Last week’s meeting in Kathmandu was a big step in that positive direction. We now hope to be working more closely with financial intelligence units.

As mentioned in Learning from the Skies, we’ve also decided to extend the fight straight to the ports –the airports and seaports— where the live animals and body parts of so many species are loaded and smuggled everyday. Helping us team up with the private sector has been the International Air Traffic Association (IATA), which is supporting “Wildlife Friendly Skies”. We are now developing “Wildlife Friendly Seas” and “Wildlife Friendly Banks” to help those industries do their own due diligence on customers and deny the bad ones any financial or logistics support. There are good people everywhere and those people represent valuable eyes and ears. Through these private sector engagement programs, we aim to learn more about who the traffickers are, where their soft spots are, while engaging good customers and the public to help out.

Meanwhile, we’ve got to convince more people (especially high level decision makers) that while the world focuses on terrorists, a different kind of threat is growing and terrorizing people and wildlife all over the world: corruption.

The best way to fight that threat and boost chances of survival: team up.