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Banking company indicted for scheme to hide drug money. Undercover probe by Customs agents reveals $32 million `laundering' network

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An international sting operation led by US Customs has uncovered an alleged drug-money laundering network of stunning proportions. At the center of the charges is the world's seventh largest privately held financial institution, the Luxembourg-based Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

The bank is charged with laundering millions of dollars in profits of the Medell'in Cartel, the Colombian drug mafia credited with supplying 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States.

This marks the latest strike in the battle to cut off the riches garnered in the drug trade from entry into the legitimate economy. Customs Commissioner William Von Raab called it ``the most important money-laundering case in US Customs history.''

The case, dubbed Operation C-Chase, also marks the first time an entire international financial institution has been indicted.

Words like ``shadowy'' and ``secretive'' have trailed the financial institution for years.

So have Customs officials, working with British and French agents. On Tuesday, Customs announced the indictment of the bank and 84 people - some of whom are present or former bank officers.

After two years of undercover investigation, Customs alleges that the network laundered at least $32 million, and the bank itself laundered at least $14 million.

In announcing the indictments, Commissioner Von Raab spoke of the operation as a shot across the bow of the international banking industry.

``These people will have to realize that civilized governments will no longer put up with the notion that business is just business,'' Mr. Von Raab said. ``I'm putting the banking industry on notice: Business with crooks is a crime.''

BCCI has some $20 billion in assets and offices in 72 countries, including nine offices in the US. The bank's specialty is in financing international business deals. It was founded and is still owned by Arab interests, which used it as an outlet for petrodollars.

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