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Arrest of money launderer 'Dolly' in Colombia is minimal blow to Sinaloa drug cartel

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(Read caption) Dolly Cifuentes Villa is escorted by police as she is presented to the media in Bogota August 10, 2011. Ms. Cifuentes is accused of laundering money for the Sinaloa de Mexico cartel led by Joaquin Chapo Guzman, according to the police.

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Police have arrested a Colombian woman accused of laundering money for the Sinaloa Cartel, shedding light on how the powerful Mexican gang tries to disguise the origins of their illicit funds with help from Colombian operatives.

On Wednesday, Colombian police announced the arrest of Dolly Cifuentes Villa, alias “La Meno,” who they claimed is a close associate of Mexico’s most wanted drug trafficker, Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo.” As El Pais reports, Ms. Cifuentes managed 32 business in Colombia and 17 outside the country, which she used to launder money for Mr. Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel.

According to police, Cifuentes and her relatives inherited the money laundering business from her brother Francisco, who was killed in 2007. Francisco was at one point the personal pilot of legendary drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, but spent much of the past decade building up his own criminal enterprise. When he died, Dolly – along with brothers Jorge Milton and Hildebrando Alexander – took over his business, ramping up their money laundering activities. AFP claims that the family has also smuggled around 30 tons of cocaine into the US for the Sinaloans over the past three years, citing data from the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

Eventually, this began to attract the attention of authorities, and in February US, Mexican, and Colombian drug officials announced they had begun an international manhunt for the three siblings, which they termed “Operation Mercury.” The operation succeeded in locating the financial assets of the Cifuentes siblings and placing them on the US Treasury Department’s Kingpin List of individuals that have ties to drug trafficking.

With Cifuentes in custody, it can only be assumed that authorities are closing in on her two brothers. But although authorities are insinuating that the arrest is a major blow to the Sinaloa Cartel’s money laundering activities, this seems rather unlikely. Not only are the Sinaloans the most powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico, some believe that they carry out operations in as many as 50 countries. In addition to the Americas, they operate in Europe, Northern Africa, and even Southeast Asia. Their wide reach gives them ample opportunity to launder their illicit profits.

But the Sinaloa Cartel does not have to look too far to hide its drug money. Like the country’s other drug trafficking organizations, it has used US banks to launder money on more than one occasion, and may even do so systematically. In fact, Mexico's drug trafficking gangs may launder up to $36 billion through its northern neighbor each year, according to some scholars. In March 2010, the US federal government sued Wachovia for not applying regulations to $378.4 billion dollars’ worth of transfers from Sinaloa Cartel agents, who deposited the money through a network of currency exchange agencies between 2004 and 2007. As the Guardian notes, the figure is worth a third of Mexico’s annual gross domestic product.

While the arrest of Cifuentes does not spell the downfall of the Sinaloa Cartel's money laundering activities, it is indicative of a broader trend in criminal activity in the hemisphere. Just 20 years ago, Colombian cartels were the heavy hitters in the drug trade, and Mexicans were simply paid to transport the drug. The fact that Mexican cartels like the Sinaloans are now using Colombians to launder their money shows how the Mexicans have worked their way up to top of the narcotics industry in a relatively short amount of time.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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