Financial Notes: The buying power of illegal narcotics

IMAGINE A multi-national company so big and powerful that its annual turnover is equal in size to China's gross national product, making that company 11th in the world rankings ahead of the Netherlands, Australia, Russia and India. A company whose gross turnover for just one financial year is sufficient to buy at current market value the world's three largest public companies, General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell and Microsoft. A company that if it dipped into its petty cash could in the same year buy Coca-Cola. A company where just 10 days turnover is in excess of the combined assets of the world's top 50 banks.

Its current annual turn-over is $500bn. The cash mountain is derived from just three assets. People, paper and product - illegal drugs.

The cartel of cartels - the drugs alliance that sits at the top of the infrastructure of the illegal narcotic world has an inexhaustible quantity of these three assets. They are endlessly available. The product, whether cocaine, opium, heroin, marijuana or the range of chemical drugs such as amphetamine, PCP, LSD, generates the paper, the dollars, the euro, sterling and countless other currencies which feed the machine - the people.

If the profits for the cartels are vast, so also are the quantities that they pump into the market. If the annual supply of cocaine were to be packed in 1.5kg bags - the size of a regular bag of flour - the amount supplied to the United States each year would, if stood on top of each other, be four times as high as Mount Everest. If the amount supplied to the entire world were similarly stacked it would be 13 times as high as Everest.

The world that this power grouping at the top of the illegal narcotics pyramid inhabits is a world where money by the ton is available for whatever is needed. In Latin America the cartels buy presidents as easily as they buy a customs official or a DEA (Drugs Enforcement Agency) official. Or the technical know-how to create and operate "El Gordo".

El Gordo, "the fat one", is the pet name for a computer regarded by its creator as "out of this world". An apt description for a system based on Nasa's computer network. No one makes a phone call, sends a fax, uses a computer, in many a Latin American city, without "sharing" the line with the fat one.

The fat one is linked to its brothers in Medellin, Cali, Bogota, Caracas, Lima and La Paz. It has immediate access to every scrap of information contained on police and Intelligence computers in Colombia and Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia: the criminal records, identification data, status of all criminal investigations.

A string of hotels, major business centres and industrial companies in Italy. A huge office block on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, another in Rue de Ponthieu and a third in Rue de Berry in Paris. Prestige real estate holdings in Montreal. A marina in Vancouver and large farm holdings near Edmonton in Canada. Farm holdings are something that the drug barons are par- ticularly fond of. They own huge tracts of land in virtually every country in South America.

In the United States drugs money has probably been used to buy five huge apartment blocks in Washington, and in New York a residential area of 250 acres situated at Oyster Bay. All of these assets are owned by offshore nominees.

In Great Britain profits from the sale of narcotics are rumoured to have been laundered to acquire substantial holdings in Canary Wharf, Belgravia, Mayfair, Hampstead and the City, a piece of the Channel Tunnel, a piece of the Japanese high speed rail network, a piece of Sydney's business centre, two marinas in Auckland . . .

The above list of holdings represents less than 20 per cent of the legal assets that have been acquired with dirty money.

David Yallop is the author of `Unholy Alliance' (Bantam, 16 March, pounds 9.99)

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