'Operation Majestic' discovered an alleged network for the laundering of black money in Casares last May. :: Alvaro Cabrera
The north side of Malaga city, February 2012. Until this moment, it was a routine search. Seven people were detained and a point of sale for drugs dismantled. But the officers sensed there was something more and the trained sniffer dogs pointed the way. When the police moved the wardrobe in a bedroom they discovered the hidden compartment, and the reason the dogs had become excited. It contained heroin, weapons and almost 20,000 euros in cash, which was a very large sum to be discovered in an operation against small-scale drugs retailing.
Casares, in May the same year. Operation 'Majestic' joined the list of cases which caused excitement in the media, in the same way as 'Malaya' and 'Ballena Blanca'. Five people were detained from an alleged money-laundering group whose tentacles originated from an Eastern mafia. Little cash was found on this occasion, but plenty of bank accounts had been created and buildings had been obtained with the fruits of money laundering.
These are just two examples from one year in one province, but they illustrate one of the lines of strategic planning which have been put in place by the Ministry of the Interior in the fight against organised crime. “The power doesn't lie in the drugs, but in the assets. If you check their investments and block their companies, you do them a lot more harm than if you confiscate their hashish”, says a senior police officer. And the word 'crisis' doesn't figure in the dictionary of these criminals. At the height of a recession, when evictions and unemployment have become part of daily life, the volume of business which is handled in the underworld is startling. In 2012, the National Police in Malaga confiscated 35 million euros in cash and assets, which can be considered a record when compared, for example, with 2011, when the figure was 16.5 million euros.
The final balance for 2012 has not yet been assessed. Another 236 buildings were embargoed during the year and these are still pending valuation by experts who have designated by the different courts. It means, however, that the initial figure of 35 million euros will have increased considerably by the time this task has been completed. The assets which are found in the hands of alleged criminals are varied. From property developments to petrol stations, and including 92 top-of-the- range vehicles. However, last year, the investigators discovered something new in the ways black money is being invested: “They are not only putting the money into property, which is easy to find, but are buying other types of luxury goods which are small but equally valuable, such as extremely expensive pieces of jewellery, or gold, because the price has risen”, explains another officer.
Through these police operations, the authorities are focusing on the assets held by the criminal organisations with the aim of weakening the gangs or, at least, forcing them to leave the country. Without lessening their vigilance in terms of drug trafficking, the work of police intelligence has been reinforced in three ways. Firstly, the officers concentate on finding the assets which are owned by members of the gangs. For this purpose, the Provincial Police HQ has created a special unit this year, which is part of the Judicial Police force and works closely with the Udyco (the unit which combats drug trafficking and organised crime) and the Udev, which specialises in violent robberies, kidnapping, extortion etc). The 'leitmotif' of this team is to uncover the assets which are enjoyed by the criminals, which could be a house, a car or a yacht, because although these have not been used to launder money they are subject to embargo by order of a judge to cover civil or criminal costs in the event of their owner being found guilty.
The second line is the search for the money. The officers know that at times of economic crisis drug traffickers take less risk with their capital and keep it in places they consider safe. These days, the transactions are smaller than they used to be: “They prefer to carry out four operations involving 250 kilos than one with 1,000, because they don't trust each other and they are worried about being detected by police. So now, they tend to move less money in cash” says one police source. The Sniffer Dog Unit is also involved in this work, using dogs who are trained to find banknotes which have been hidden in holes and all other types of places.
The third and final line of strategy, which is not new but has been intensified, is based on searching for property and financial engineering which has been used for the purpose of laundering money. According to figures from the Governmental Sub-Delegate's Department, the National Police have discovered assets worth 30,757,000 euros in Malaga province in different operations which took place in 2012 and these are all related to the laundering of money which originates from criminal activities.
Dogs which are trained to sniff out the banknotes
They played a leading role in 'Operación Emperador' against the Chinese networks. Their highly-trained sense of smell helped the police to locate 9.5 million euros in cash that had been hidden in the most unexected places in the buildings which were being searched, such as inside a printer, a bidet or a strongbox hidden among cardboard boxes.
The BCL (Billetes de Curso Legal) Dogs began operating in 2009 and their everyday work consists of entertaining themselves by finding banknotes. This is a game for them, but for the police it is an essential tool in the search for black money. The powerful sense of smell of these animals, which can distinguish one particle from among 100,000, means that physical obstacles and walls are no impediment to them finding where the money has been hidden.
What happens to the money and items which are seized?
When the spectacular sums of money and property seized by the police are revealed, the question arises: What happens to these things? Senior judge José María Páez explains: “The money is paid into an account held by the court while the case is pending, to cover future civil or criminal costs. With regard to the assets, two things can happen. If they are perishable, they are given to charities; if not, they are kept in storage”. In the latter case, a judicial administrator is appointed to avoid their depreciation.
At the end of the process, there could be one of three scenarios. If the suspect is found guilty and sentenced, the assets are sent to auction and the money obtained for them is paid into the Treasury account; this is also the case with cash - it is handed over to swell the State coffers. If the suspects are cleared, their cash and assets are returned to them. If any items had been stolen, they are returned to their legitimate owners. “This is a slow process, but control over it is absolute. Nevertheless, we are trying to make it less cumbersome in order to save costs”, says the judge.