‘El Chapo’ and El Banco

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman

US media are celebrating the arrest of alleged Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, whose Sinaloa Cartel is thought to be the most powerful trafficker in the world and “a main combatant in a spasm of violence that has left tens of thousands dead in Mexico” (New York Times, 2/22/14).

US Attorney General Eric Holder called the arrest a “landmark achievement”: “The criminal activity Guzman allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence and corruption.”

But that activity wasn’t conducted by Guzman alone, and another notable player appears to be missing from the current story.

In 2012, banking corporation HSBC agreed to forfeit $1.256 billion and enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department for violating myriad laws by, among other things, laundering money for drug cartels, including Sinaloa.

HSBC HQ in London (photo: Danesman1/Wikimedia)

HSBC HQ in London (photo: Danesman1/Wikimedia)

“As a result of HSBC Bank USA’s AML [anti-money laundering] failures, at least $881 million in drug trafficking proceeds–including proceeds of drug trafficking by the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and the Norte del Valle Cartel in Colombia–were laundered through HSBC Bank USA,” reads a December 11, 2012 statement from the Department of Justice, which called the bank’s failures “stunning,” “astonishing” and “blatant.”

Indeed, as Reuters (12/11/12) reported, based on federal court documents and prosecutors’ statements:

In February 2008, Mexican authorities told the CEO of HSBC’s Mexico unit that a local drug lord referred to the bank as the “place to launder money,” US prosecutors said…

So rampant was the practice…that on some days drug traffickers deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars at HSBC Mexico accounts. To speed things along, the criminals even designed ‘specially shaped boxes’ that fit the size of teller windows at HSBC branches, according to the documents.

But while the only questions regarding Guzman’s prosecution appear to be where and when, things were different when it came to prosecuting the institution that supported what Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton called “the lifeblood of their operations.”

The DOJ “stopped short of indicting HSBC,” as the New York Times phrased it (3/1/13) because, according to Justice Department prosecutor Lanny Breuer, there were other considerations:

Had the US authorities decided to press criminal charges, HSBC would certainly have lost its banking license in the US, the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.

Judging by coverage, media bought that line (Extra!, 1/14).

For its part, HSBC declared itself “profoundly sorry” for “past mistakes.”

Media’s elision of the bank’s role from current reporting on Sinoloa suggests they bought that one, too.


About Janine Jackson

Program Director and Co-producer of CounterSpin
Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra! and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC's Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.