The plague of money laundering in Latin America is of breathtaking proportions. According to Charles Intriago, a former U.S. federal prosecutor who publishes the authoritative monthly newsletter Money Laundering Alert, an estimated $5 billion in U.S. real estate has been acquired by corrupt Latin American officials, politicians and their associates. U.S. authorities have tied drug-related laundered funds to officials in former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari's government, to cite one prominent example. Complex money trails were always hard to follow, but the fight against global terrorists has now given U.S. investigators unprecedented freedom to probe the financial dealings of prominent officials around the world.

Last August, under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States quietly created a Miami-based financial task force that, for the first time, specifically targets the sources of public corruption and bribery in foreign countries. The unit is now pursuing at least nine cases in Latin America, according to Anthony Arico, chief of the task force. About 50 new amendments written into the 2001 Patriot Act have radically eased the burden of proof for U.S. investigators. Among other things, the amendments now make foreign corruption a so-called predicate crime for money laundering, raising the possibility that sovereign banking laws may not offer the same protections to secretive account holders as they once did.

The new legal framework has been quickly put to use. Following leads in Nicaragua, U.S. Customs Service agents recently opened an investigation of former Nicaraguan tax-authority chief Byron Jerez and his ex-boss, former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman. Last month the United States seized a $2.7 million condominium on Key Biscayne, Florida, they say is owned by Jerez, along with $150,000 from an account he had in a U.S. bank. Jerez was found guilty on criminal charges including fraud last summer in Nicaragua, but his conviction was overturned in part in December. The prosecutor is appealing and Jerez is free pending the appeal. A Nicaraguan judge last year sentenced Aleman to 20 years under house arrest on charges of fraud, embezzlement and criminal association. Aleman has appealed the conviction, and says his prosecution is a politically inspired witch hunt by his successor. "We've been successful right from the get-go in [seizing] property and identifying a number of [corrupt] foreign officials," says Arico.

Now the task force may be turning its attention to Guatemala's outgoing president, Alfonso Portillo, who will be replaced later this month after a runoff election victory by former Guatemala City mayor Oscar Berger. "We are investigating bank accounts opened by [Portillo and his sons] in Panama," one U.S. official told NEWSWEEK. So far, the investigation hasn't revealed any illegalities, and Portillo has proclaimed his innocence. "Opening the accounts isn't illegal, but moving money is," said the official.

In Miami, the task force is interviewing witnesses, and officials have opened a grand-jury investigation. One of the witnesses is Karen Fischer, a Guatemalan who was once the lead investigator for that country's anti-corruption agency. A year ago, she says, she uncovered information implicating several top Guatemalan government officials in three separate cases of money laundering totaling more than $15 million. She said the money, obtained from kickbacks and graft, was moved out of Guatemala via offshore companies and bank accounts in Panama and Miami. "They took the money out of Guatemala, sent it to Panama and afterwards to Miami. But we don't know what happened after that," she told NEWSWEEK. When Fischer presented the evidence to her superiors, they told her to shut down the case. Fischer instead gave her files to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. Two days later, six U.S. Customs agents flew down to Guatemala to meet privately with her and review the evidence.

It's not clear how aggressive the hunt for corrupt officials might become. And it's too soon to say whether the U.S. task force can put a dent in the massive flow of dirty money. But investigators have more power than ever before, and so far they haven't been shy about going after big-time suspects, whoever they might be.

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