Por Mayra Rocha
Can you imagine getting to a point where you do not know how much money you have? That is what the leader of the Cali Cartel, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, told his then partner of eight years. That detail is just a glimpse into the illegal drug trade that has become true multinational corporations of crime.
In 2011, Forbes magazine placed Joaquin "El Chapo” Guzman among the richest men in the world and the second richest in Mexico, with an estimated fortune of $1 billion. Today this fortune is estimated to be around $14 billion.
According to the Colombian district attorney’s office, the fortune of drug lord Rodriguez Orejuela, known as the "El Ajedrecista" (The Chess Player) exceeded one billion dollars at the time of his arrest in 1995. Pablo Escobar, the Medellin cartel leader had an estimated net worth of $9 to $15 billion at the time of his capture.
What many wonder is what happens to the fortunes of these drug traffickers once they are arrested.
In Mexico, according to Alonso Carriles, Director of the Administration of Property Disposal (SAE) a unit of the Ministry of Finance, when the department receives the assets, which are secured and protected by the Attorney General's Office (PGR), they are held until criminal proceedings against the owners are decided. The number of forfeited money in that account could be above $330 million.
In the United States the process of asset forfeiture derived from crime depends on who makes the seizure.
"If it is a typical case where they make a traffic stop and then start to smell or see things that result in an arrest of drug traffickers, that is a state case," says detective Rodolfo Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
The money found or seized assets go to a prosecutor who determines whether there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to court. The owner must prove the innocence of what has been confiscated. Once the legality or illegality of money and assets is determined and crime victims are compensated, under a program called Asset Forfeiture the Department of Justice shares the remaining proceeds with state and federal law enforcement authorities.
"By law, 65 percent goes to the department confiscated, 35 percent is divided between the state and prosecutors to continue anti-drug operations."
Between 2001 and 2014, according to an investigation made by The Washington Post with data from the Department of Justice, the LAPD received 18.4 million dollars under this program, the NYPD $27 million, and the Sheriff's Department of Los Angeles won 24.3 million dollars.
Money that was used to buy equipment, technology, training and operations to continue fighting drug trafficking.
If the currency or properties are seized by federal authorities such as the FBI or the DEA, the money ends up in the custody of the Departments of Treasury and Justice, and the goods are then resold at auctions.
Such was the case of the Miami Beach mansion owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, that was purchased by a couple from Florida more than 20 years ago for less than a million dollars, price well below the market for a mansion with an ocean view.
Jim Shedd, a former DEA agent during the Colombian drug lord’s reign, says that drug traffickers today learned their lessons from the past referring to goods that Escobar had in Miami.
“He had car dealerships, horses in Ocala, FL, and a residential rental building, all that was confiscated. Then they learn. ‘Why should I invest in the United States if they will take it all away?’”
According to Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist who wrote the book Zero, Zero, Zero, an investigation turned novel on different international mafias; assumes "El Chapo doesn’t have things. And the things that he owns are registered under unexpected people, not under relatives. He puts them under ordinary people’s names”.
Whether it's houses or luxury cars, in Mexico when the assets are not claimed they end up in auctions. Last year Univision attended an auction where a Ferrari and Maserati were being sold, valued at $300,000 the buyer purchased them for half the price.
Gabriel Regino, a criminal lawyer in Mexico says that buildings, land, hotels and homes go to auction. Although, he emphasizes that houses are harder to sell since buying a house where a drug lord once lived, could bring problems for the new owners. As a result, the Mexican government has opted to rent them to non-profit organizations.
Meanwhile, in Colombia once assets are seized a period opens for the accused to defend his property. If it is proven that the goods were acquired illegally, the Attorney General yields the assets to a fund for the restitution of victims of organized crime. It is there, where much of the assets that once belonged to Pablo Escobar and other leaders of the Medellin and Cali cartels were allocated to.
That's why the son of Pablo Escobar, Sebastian Marroquin, has publicly assured that neither he nor his family were left with any money from the drug trafficking businesses his father managed, and that everything was left in the hands of the government or to those affected by his father. According to him, the only thing he inherited from his father was a watch.