TIJUANA, Mexico - Every day, criminals shove proceeds from U.S. drug sales in their shoes, tape it to their torsos, stash it under dashboards - or just wire it electronically to Mexico. It all adds up to $25 billion a year.
A highly touted U.S. Treasury Department program aimed at starving Mexican drug cartels of that cash is now blocking just $3 million, an Associated Press investigation has found.
That's in addition to $58 million seized under a new initiative at the U.S.-Mexico border. The figures suggest that $99.75 of every $100 that the cartels ship south is getting through - money fueling a brutal war that has killed 14,000 people in three years.
Bundles of $100 bills that add up to billions are sneaked in each year and then laundered into ostensibly legitimate funds at car dealerships, banks, pharmacies, restaurants, and resorts.
That money pays Mexican farmers to grow more marijuana and pays Colombian smugglers to sneak in more cocaine. It bribes Mexican soldiers and U.S. Border Patrol agents, and pays assassins and mercenaries to take out rival smugglers or would-be prosecutors.
"This is the brilliance of the drug cartels," said Louise Shelley, who directs the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University. "They pay ordinary people to get cash across the border for them, and then easily launder it into working capital to build and expand their violent and illicit operations."
Unlike drugs and weapons, money is everywhere, legally carried through airports, into banks, and across borders every day. U.S. law enforcement agents have recently tried to get tough on controlling the money, searching southbound cars at the border and freezing bank accounts of cartel bosses.
"We recognize that focusing on drugs and weapons, without stopping the money, is not going to stop the cartels," Assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary David Cohen told the AP.
The Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, enacted 10 years ago, allows the president to designate individuals and corporations as drug traffickers, freezing their bank accounts and penalizing people for doing business with them. Dozens of cartel-related businesses and individuals - including billionaire cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman - have been named.
Mexican cartel chief Arturo Beltran Leyva, killed in a shoot-out Wednesday in Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City, had been designated a narcotics kingpin by President Bush in May 2008.
The act lets the U.S. "strike the kingpins' international networks of front companies, facilitators and straw men," Associate Treasury Director J. Robert McBrien recently told Mexican bankers.
But results, in terms of blocking assets, have been minimal.
After the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request and made repeated queries for six weeks, a U.S. Treasury official, on the condition her name not be used, gave the AP records showing that $16 million had been blocked - including $13 million that was seized - from Mexican drug cartels over the last decade. Of that, $3 million is currently being blocked.
The Treasury official played down the importance of the low returns, saying the act was designed mostly as a deterrent to keep drug organizations out of the U.S. financial system.
That's ridiculous, said Raymond Baker, director of the Washington-based nonprofit Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail the cross-border flow of illegal money.
"They seized $16 million in 10 years? That's absolutely nothing. That doesn't amount to a deterrent. That is an unsuccessful effort," he said. "We haven't begun to curtail the flow of illicit money generated by the cartels, and as a consequence of that we have not begun to curtail the drug trade."
And while the law also allows criminal penalties of up to $10 million and civil penalties of up to $1 million for doing business with the cartels, the records show just three fines related to Mexican drug cartels - the largest being about $40,000.