Every day, American Airlines Flight 914 takes off from Bogota, Colombia, at 8:20 a.m. and touches down at the Miami airport at noon. In the jet's cargo hold are usually bags and bags of euros that investigators say are part of a huge $1.4-billion cocaine money-laundering scheme.
Crime is happening right on schedule in Miami, almost every day, federal prosecutors say. But so far, despite nearly four years of investigation, they have apparently been unable to build a strong enough case to stop it.
Instead, they are attacking the problem piecemeal. The Justice Department this week went to federal court in Miami seeking forfeiture of nearly $11-million seized in June and July by federal agents, who used drug-sniffing dogs to find cocaine residue on some of the cash.
The money is only a tiny fraction of a huge scheme to launder euros from the sale of Colombian cocaine in Europe, Justice Department attorney Lea Carlisle said in the document. She said the total coming through U.S. airports could reach 1-billion euros a year, or about $1.4-billion at current exchange rates.
The complex arrangement involves money exchanges in Colombia, commercial jetliners from the United States and Britain and financial firms in Miami and London. When the circle is complete, drug cartels cloak the true source of millions of dollars, authorities say.
Vast quantities of cocaine are smuggled each year from Colombia to Spain and then sold throughout Europe, where use is growing dramatically. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says cocaine sells in Europe for twice what it brings in this country, generating large amounts of cash.
"All of this means they have a new problem - laundering their euros," said Bruce Bagley, adrug trafficking expert. "This new problem has led them to these complex daisy-chain money laundering activities."
Huge amounts of cash are moved around the globe all the time, most of it legitimate. But the Drug Enforcement Administration, Justice Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began investigating in 2004 after agents noticed astronomical amounts of euros coming into Miami from Bogota.
Still, no one has been charged with a crime. Convicting someone requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a tougher legal standard than the one for confiscating suspected drug money.
Moreover, to search a bulk cash shipment, U.S. investigators need a warrant. They cannot get one unless they can show probable cause to believe it's dirty money.
Bagley said the lack of criminal charges is a sign that investigators have yet to build enough evidence against any conspirators, something that often depends on inside informants or drug defendants looking to make deals for lighter sentences.
"The U.S. government is behind the curve on this," Bagley said. "This is a test case to see how far they can get."