Last night, Salvadoran police found a forth barrel of money in El Salvador. The first three were found last weeked and contained a combined total of $10.2 million. This latest barrel was found buried on a property in La Quinta Residencial Las Mercedes, in Canton Lourdes of Colon, La Libertad, while the other barrels were found in a canton of Zacatecaluca, La Paz. The police have not said how much was in this latest barrel only that “approximately 80% of the bills are large.”
While we don’t have much information on how the police came to search this particular property, the search last weekend was the result of information provided to Salvadoran police by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The Attorney General’s office has stated that the $10.2 million found in Zacatecaluca is without a doubt the product of drug trafficking, though he did not provide details. Authorities also report that Guatemalans owned the property where the latest barrel was found.
The capture of such large quantities of money is a blow for drug traffickers. This week, several Salvadoran analysts have speculated that the shutdown of the bus system was less about gang members voicing their frustrations, and more about drug traffickers angry about government officials confiscating their money. While we have no indication that this is the case, it is clear that drug trafficking and money laundering are a serious issue in El Salvador. In recent years, top officials in the police department, and even members of the legislative assembly have been accused or convicted of being involved in the drug trade.
While El Salvador is a transit point for drugs en route from South American producers to North American markets, many experts believe that the country’s main value added to the drug trade is laundering money. There are several routes that traffickers take to North American markets, all of which include various legs over land, sea, and air. Narcotics often enter El Salvador in the Gulf of Fonseco or other areas along the coast, shipped in on small, fast boats that easily escape detection from DEA or Salvadoran Navy patrols. They also enter over land, through any one of El Salvador’s punto ciegos (unmanned boarder crossings). Earlier in the summer, President Funes deployed military units to help close these boarder crossings and stem the flow of drugs and other contraband in and out of the country.
Less is known about money laundering in El Salvador, though experts claim that the country’s stable banking system and lax regulations create the right conditions for drug cartels wanting to convert their ill-gotten cash into clean bank deposits. Two other factors that facilitate the process is that El Salvador has a constant flow of remittances from the U.S. (remittances are the cash sent by Salvadorans working in the U.S. to their family members back home) and the fact that El Salvador adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency back in 2001. Experts fear that drug traffickers are using the system for sending remittances to El Salvador as a way of laundering their drug money. In addition, money launderers operate businesses and report false sales and transactions to clean their drug money.
It remains unclear how the barrels of money found over the past couple of weekends fit into this process, but it is a very big reminder that drug cartels are using El Salvador for shipping their product and managing their cash.