Major US banks have recently closed branches along the southern border with Mexico in an attempt to crack down on money laundering, a reflection of the ease with which Mexican drug traffickers can legitimize illicit proceeds north of the border.
In recent months, major banks such J.P. Morgan and Bank of America have closed their branches in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, reported The Wall Street Journal. Other banks, including Wells Fargo and Chase, have reportedly closed hundreds of customer accounts, many of which belonged to Mexican nationals.
The anti-money laundering measures come amid tightening regulations stipulating that banks can be hit with stiff fines if they fail to adequately monitor suspicious accounts, reported National Public Radio.
Banks on the Mexican side of the border have also recently stepped up their efforts to combat money laundering operations. Some Mexican banks have started refusing to accept US dollars, according to The Associated Press.
InSight Crime Analysis
US banks have real reason to fear criminal networks will use their financial services to launder money. Arizona has previously been singled out as a principal money laundering destination for Mexican drug cartels, and bank executives told The Wall Street Journal that Southern California and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas are also high-risk border areas. As evidenced by the recent decisions, in some cases it is easier for banks to simply close accounts and branches rather than attempting to keep criminals from using their financial services.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border
Several high-profile cases point to the ability of Mexican drug traffickers to legalize their illicit funds via the US banking system. In 2010, Wachovia (which is now Wells Fargo) reached an agreement with the US government after prosecutors found that at least $110 million in drug proceeds had been laundered through the bank. In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also uncovered a scheme in which Mexico's Zetas cartel laundered money through a horse racing enterprise by using Bank of America accounts.
In addition, the decisions by major banks to close their border branches suggest that putting pressure on banks -- rather than going after individuals or criminal networks -- may be the most effective way to combat money laundering. A recent legal decision, in which a conviction was overturned in the Zetas horse racing case, demonstrates just how difficult it can be for prosecutors to go after the money launderers themselves.