February 1, 2018
I spent most of 2013 in South America, and most of my time in South America drunk. The few years previous had been filled with bad life decisions, avoidable career mishaps, rotten luck, poor planning, heartbreaks, injuries, and all of the other things that make one’s late 30’s so memorable. Following a few years of that, with a little extra money in the bank and damn little to do with my time, I had a delightful year sipping cheap liquor and even cheaper beer in some of the loveliest cities in the world.
My home base was Colombia, a glorious nation with so much of what I love in life. Clean mountain air, great soccer players, long warm days, salsa dancers, and of course cheap booze. What I didn’t know, though, was that I was also helping to launder money. Now then, it’s pretty difficult just to be in Colombia more than a few hours while avoiding at least indirect participation in washing a dollar or two. Odds are that some time between touchdown at the airport and sitting down to your first meal, you’ve dipped a peso in detergent somehow. But a recent article about the illicit Colombia booze trade sheds light on an oddity that even I wouldn’t have associated with money laundering at the time.
The story is here and is about a fairly straightforward way to avoid the federales when dealing with your drug cash. It’s simple. Barter. One of the trickiest moments in moving money around illegally is crossing the border. In this case that was mitigated by paying with goods instead of cash. Your Colombian drug runner smuggles cocaine into Asia, and instead of collecting a bunch of American dollars, the wholesale buyer in Asia sends back booze and cigarettes. That works at two levels. First, there are thousands of small, essentially unregulated corner stores in Colombia. Once again, it is one of the great things about the place. Talk about walking neighborhoods. Thus your shipping containers full of whiskey and smokes can be distributed to enough locations that no one point will give your operation away. If you’re caught with a warehouse full of the stuff, that’s different, but a few bottles each on a few hundred shelves, here and there? Who’s to know.
It also helps the Colombians with one of the age old problems dealing with profits from the drug trade. The product is sold in dollars or Euros. Just like buying oil, the transactions happen in a stable, reliable reserve currency. Nobody who sells a hundred kilos of blow takes payment in Vietnamese Dong or Bulgarian Lev. But you cant buy a house with those dollars in Colombia. The drug cartels want payment in dollars, but they need Colombian pesos for living the good life in Colombia. Having goods instead of dollars shipped from overseas in exchange for drugs means the foreign exchange step is taken out of the calculation. You send X, you get back Y, and Y is easily converted into immediately useful pesos, and all with pristine paperwork coming off the shipper at the Colombian port.
What made me notice this story, though, was the picture in that article linked above. I have spent endless hours on both sides of bars, both drinking firewater and pouring the stuff. But I have only seen Old Parr whiskey in any quantity two places – East Asia and South America. I have to think that when I was out on the tiles in Poblado in Medellin, I was actually drinking imported Sino-American whiskey. An American label slapped on a bottle of Chinese hooch that had been traded for Colombian Energy Powder in order to pay bills in Medellin. Ain’t globalization grand?