A series of trucks smuggling large amounts of cash of unknown origin have been intercepted along Argentina's northern border, leading to suspicions that coronavirus-related restrictions on the movement of goods have spurred the bulk cash shipments.
Since the beginning of June, authorities have seized more than 60 million pesos (over $830,000) hidden in trucks traveling from Argentina’s northern provinces to the capital Buenos Aires, La Nación reported. Argentine pesos, US dollars, Paraguayan guarani and even gold bars have been concealed in trucks carrying sugar, clothes and other goods.
None of the truck drivers transporting the cash have had the proper paperwork or receipts to account for the money, according to Todo Noticias. The drivers have been arrested for suspected money laundering while authorities continue to investigate the source and destination of the bulk cash shipments.
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Authorities have stopped the vehicles in several provinces near the Paraguay border, including Corrientes, Chaco, Santiago del Estero and, most recently, Formosa, according to La Nación.
Within 15 days, authorities uncovered two cash shipments of $30,000 and $50,000 in vehicles in Colinda, a border town in Formosa. The National Gendarmerie (Gendarmería Nacional) also reported seizing two gold bars worth nearly $80,000.
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Though the source of the cash is unknown, contraband is increasingly moving through northern Argentina, where border shutdowns due to the coronavirus have created new opportunities for smugglers.
Guillermo Molinari, a federal judge in Santiago del Estero, the province where the first seizure occurred, suggested in an interview with La Nación that the cash could be connected to drug trafficking or money laundering. This would parallel recent million-dollar seizures of drug money along the US-Mexico border. US authorities say traffickers have returned to smuggling cash the old-fashioned way after the pandemic scuttled typical trade-based money laundering.
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Argentina's security minister, Sabina Frederic, said in an interview that she suspects the cash shipments are to pay for wholesale clothing in Buenos Aires. The buyers normally head to the capital's market themselves to make the purchases, known as "tours de compra," but coronavirus mobility restrictions have made such trips impossible. The items are now ordered online and paid for with the cash shipments to avoid banking fees and sales tax, according to Clarín.
Authorities also speculate that smugglers -- who usually work for drug traffickers -- are now being hired to transport money along the same routes.
The most recent bulk cash seizures have occurred near the border town of Clorinda in Formosa, which shares a large swath of barren borderland with Paraguay.
InSight Crime researchers investigating smuggling dynamics in Formosa have been told that contraband moves through the Argentina-Paraguay border regularly, often by organized crews. Some are dedicated solely to transporting marijuana in Paraguay, Latin America's largest producer of illegal cannabis.
Contraband cigarettes are also moved in the border region. shortage of cigarettes in Argentina after to the coronavirus pandemic, cigarette smuggling has surged to feed the black market trade.
A local journalist who spoke to InSight Crime said there are entire zones in Formosa that live almost exclusively from the proceeds of contraband.