- - Monday, February 27, 2017

Sometimes the obvious just needs to be said. Official Washington is bellyaching about the cost of President Trump’s “wall,” intended to protect the Southwest border. Some put the cost at more than $20 billion. So be it. Beyond contraband and illegal immigrants coming north, something goes south: cash. Simply put, these illicit proceeds, counted in the tens of billions, would easily pay for the wall — time to say so.

At root, criminal cartels do not traffic in drugs for ideology, gamesmanship or to fill the time. The objective is to make money, and pushing an addictive substance on a willing population and creating ever-expanding demand is simply the means to a financial end. Estimates of U.S. narcotics sales vary, but drugs flowing from and through Mexico generate inordinately high sums of illegal cash. Half a decade ago, a 2010 White House study pegged the rough number at $109 billion annually. Today, that number is doubtless higher.

Obviously, concealing and moving these illegal profits is a major undertaking for traffickers. In sheer bulk weight, officials place the drug money poundage at approximately 20 million pounds annually. However, long gone are the days of “Miami Vice,” when the money launderer could simply walk into a U.S. bank with a suitcase full of cash, deposit it and be on his way. With increasing financial transparency and bank reporting requirements — now being more rigorously enforced — traffickers have a burgeoning logistics problem.

Today, cartel functionaries default to smuggling bulk cash across national borders with the same stealth that accompanies the smuggling of drugs and people. Recent U.S. government estimates have suggested that a substantial portion of $18 billion to $39 billion per year in the form of bulk cash is smuggled annually across our southern border. Accordingly, the process has gone industrial — which is exactly why it is the right avenue for recouping the money needed to build the wall.

This uncontrolled hemorrhage of billions of untaxed drug dollars into cartel coffers must stop. It fuels massive and expanding drug gangs in the United States, pays for public corruption, and is tightly tied to elevating violent crime in Mexico and the U.S. Unfortunately, much of this smuggled currency goes undetected. According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office study, America seized less than 1 percent of the multibillions in drug-trafficking proceeds clandestinely moved beyond our borders in recent years.

Put another way, we are seizing a George Washington quarter for every $100 Benjamin note. That by itself is an outrage, but now imagine directing a portion of the recovered money toward the wall’s construction. The U.S. government is fully aware of this problem, and bulk cash smuggling was prominently featured in our last National Money Laundering Strategy from 2007. Additional cash is sometimes seized by other law enforcement agencies in the interior of the country — and by Mexican law enforcement south of the border as well — but specific efforts to address the financial aspects of global criminality are not systematic.

We should hit this hard: Increase national efforts and energies to counter bulk cash smuggling moving southward into Mexico. A renewed focus here would be a force multiplier. Not only would it hit cartels where it ultimately hurts, but seizing bulk cash in targeted, counter-crime operations may also generate the funds needed to pay for improved security on the Southwest border. Just working with the roughly $20 billion for annual escaped bulk cash, a 10 percent increase in seizures would generate $2 billion a year. In ten years, without increased efficiency, we would have the $20 billion needed to fund the wall — and likely take a bite out of drug trafficking, drug trafficker wealth and domestic addiction in the process. That is what casual observers would call a win-win-win.

If we use big data, advanced analytics, create more effective targeting, and address other modes of illicit proceeds returning to Mexico in the form of trade-based value transfer and stored value cards, we could do even more or accelerate the recoup. Employing successful tactics in the design and placement of the wall, creating and tracking advantages of terrain, natural barriers, and resource deployment, we could accelerate the security advantages by forcing southbound smugglers to use routes and border crossings we want them to use.

The Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking signed on Feb. 9 is spot-on. The Trump administration intends to refocus national efforts to combat global criminality, enhancing border security with a comprehensive suite of methods and approaches. The key is to do this without “breaking the bank.” This is the way — hit bulk cash hard, and start collecting interest immediately. Let’s use seized bulk cash to pay for the wall.

John A. Cassara is a former intelligence officer and Treasury special agent.

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