Dirty money

Argentina mulls opening its banks to money launderers

May 16, 2013
May 16, 2013

Have some dirty money you need to launder? You may want to consider Argentina as an option. Lawmakers there are considering a measure that would give amnesty to anyone who wants to pull undeclared cash out of tax havens and deposit it in Argentinian banks.

The government of President Cristina Kirchner is behind the proposal, saying the country needs to do something drastic in order to prop up its investment-starved economy—especially its stalled energy and construction sectors. The idea has a certain logic. Currency pressure in the country is so intense that the black market exchange rate is double the official rate of about 5.2 pesos per US dollar, and even the most upstanding of Argentines stash their money anywhere but banks as a hedge against inflation. Foreign reserves have fallen by nearly a quarter in the last two years to $40 billion, the lowest level since Kirchner took office. With an election coming up in October, Kirchner, her popularity already plummeting, can’t afford further devaluation.

But the proposal has wide-ranging implications, including making Argentina a magnet for global money-laundering. If passed, the amnesty would last at least three months. During that window, banks would issue tax-free energy bonds and certificates of deposit to invest in construction or real estate—without asking where the cash came from.

And there’s a lot of that illicit cash floating around Argentina, thanks to all of the organized crime, drug trafficking, illicit trading, fraud and political corruption in the region. Crime groups and cells of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah have long made the country a kind of Wild West for criminal activity. The tri-border area Argentina shares with Brazil and Paraguay is considered the largest illicit economy in the Western Hemisphere.

So an amnesty program would likely benefit the criminals at well as much as their upstanding countrymen. At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Argentina’s auditor general, Leandro Despouy, warned that the proposal is an invitation for virtually anyone with dirty money to have it “legitimized through fictitious groups.”

In a previous amnesty in 2009, the government replenished its coffers with $4 billion. No doubt some was illicit. The current proposal’s supporters say it prohibits elected officials and anyone facing money-laundering probes from participating. But tax lawyer Roberto Durrieu told lawmakers that because of gaping holes in the proposed law, “we run the risk that organized crime would see a window to enter Argentina.”

Some financial experts also warn that an amnesty would prompt global regulators like the Financial Action Task Force to penalize Argentina for encouraging money laundering. Argentina is already on the outs with such agencies for not aggressively following international anti-money laundering processes. And in its 2012 report, Transparency International says the country ranks far down the list of corrupt governments, between Mongolia and Gabon.

The vote is slated for next week. That may be bad timing for Kirchner, given the media’s interest in a criminal probe into her friend, the businessman Lazaro Baez, for alleged corruption and money laundering. (He has denied the allegations). And Miriam Quiroga, Kirchner’s former personal secretary, recently declared in a TV interview that she saw bags of cash being carried through the Casa Rosada government house.

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