Money launderers fear end of peseta

The euro will stop drug traffickers' lottery fiddle, writes Elizabeth Nash
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THERE WAS double cause for celebration in the Galician fishing village of Vilagarcia de Arousa when it won second prize in "El Gordo", Spain's biggest lottery, just before Christmas.

Countless villagers in this windswept backwater enjoyed a holiday windfall. But they were not the only ones to benefit. The region's powerful drug traffickers had the perfect opportunity to launder sackloads of ill- gotten pesetas before the euro renders them worthless.

Throughout Vilagarcia and nearby hamlets, which together won more than Pta7.2bn (pounds 30m), winners have been inundated with offers to buy their tickets at a 30 per cent mark-up on the prize value. In some cases bank managers have served as intermediaries, putting winners in touch with those eager to hand over fistfuls of dosh.

The lottery has long been a foolproof means of laundering money in Galicia, and the region around Vilagarcia is considered a major gateway into Europe for cocaine from Colombia's drug cartels. But the advent of the single European currency has delivered a thump of urgency to the traffic of lottery tickets in recent months.

Money launderers have a headache: if they do not get to a bank and exchange their pesetas for euros by 30 June 2002, their banknotes will shrivel overnight to the value of Monopoly money. But handing millions of pesetas over the counter alerts the attention of the authorities.

Evidence of money laundering abounds in these narrow inlets and coastal villages. Nightclubs blaze with light down dark country lanes; mansions bristling with state-of-the-art satellite equipment squat behind fat granite walls.

But property investments are no longer sufficient to recycle funny money into saleable assets. They are too cumbersome, take too long and leave too many traces. Buying winning lottery tickets, on the other hand, is a clean and efficient transaction that leaves no trace. When the numbers are announced, the traffickers ask around to discover the winners and offer a better price for their ticket.

Portions, known as "decimos", worth Pta14.4m (pounds 60,000) of Vilagarcia's winning ticket, are changing hands at Pta20m (pounds 83,000). This means that by writing off a mere 23 grand you can buy the ticket, cash it in a bank and - hey presto - legitimately declare pounds 60,000.

"It's part of our daily life here," said one Vilagarcia resident. "It's a private transaction between a buyer and a seller in which everyone ends up winning. How can you prove that the buyer is laundering money? If someone offers to pay more than it's worth, that's up to them. No one suffers. Who's to say it's a crime?"

The Galician Platform against Drug Trafficking has requested the state anti-corruption prosecutor to investigate the purchase of Vilagarcia's winning tickets by known traffickers. The organisation cites the precedent of a notorious Galician drugs baron, Manuel Charlin, who was picked up some years back with a stash of winning lottery tickets waiting to be cashed.

"The practice is a crime and the weight of the law must fall upon those who use this method to launder their filthy money," said the platform's president, Jose Antonio Sanchez, last week.

Some 20 per cent of Spain's economy is said to comprise undeclared "black" funds, one of the highest proportions in Europe. The Bank of Spain reckons that of Pta9bn in circulation, perhaps Pta3bn is "excess" - funding activities behind the taxman's back, or squirrelled away in Galician hidey-holes.

Winners of "El Gordo" have until March to cash in their tickets - or hold out for a better offer.