With approval from the British government the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Internal Revenue Service started "Operation Dinero" in 1992 with the aim of pretending to launder money from the Cali cartel, which produces much of the cocaine sold in the US.
Thomas Constantine, head of the DEA, said yesterday: "This is the first time we've ever gotten to the level of operating a secret offshore bank that they [the Cali cartel] felt very comfortable with." He said the operation showed the international connections of Cali, including Italian organised crime.
As a result of Operation Dinero some 58 people are under arrest in the US, Italy and Spain, including Paquale Locatelli, a leading Italian criminal who had escaped from prison in France by helicopter.
The assets seized included Picasso's Head of a Baker, Rubens' St Paul and a portrait of a man by Sir Joshua Reynolds whom agents said they were unable to indentify. The net criminal profits from the US drugs trade is put by the State Department at $20bn and is regarded by experts as unstoppable.