BOOK REVIEW / Cleaning up with the international banks: The laundrymen - Jeffrey Robinson: Simon & Schuster pounds 17.99

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BANKERS always used to follow the time- honoured three-five-three principle. They borrowed money at 3 per cent, lent it out again at 5 per cent, and hit the golf course at three o'clock. Not a bad old life. But modern finance has introduced speed and nastiness into this placid formula. According to Jeffrey Robinson's new account of money laundering, today's banks are, in effect, hired lackeys of the world's drug barons. The barons need to convert piles of druggy cash into clean, legal income, and the banks - with their indelible reflex towards secrecy and profiteering - help them do it.

The central thesis of the book, then, is that money laundering could not happen without the tolerant, not to say enthusiastic, connivance of bankers, lawyers, and governments. It sounds like a scandal, but many world-weary readers will have only one question: what's the big surprise?

Robinson covers a great deal of ground, perhaps too much. He gives us a thumbnail sketch of Swiss secrecy law, the courteous friend of those - Marcos, Honecker and so on - who seek safety in numbers. He explains that money laundering, like many of the great modern crimes, is an American idea, and credits Meyer Lansky with the invention of dummy accounts and bogus wire transfers. He explores the links between organised crime and even more organised accounting practices, and drops in on the usual suspects: Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Abu Nidal, Noraid, the CIA, Iran Contra, Banco Ambrosiano, and so on.

The result is wide-ranging, but potted: a guided tour of the hot spots, with Robinson cast as the man talking into a microphone up at the front of the bus. On our left, he seems to say, in his breathless, tabloid style, we have the Medellin cartel, one of the biggest and most vicious drug trafficking organisations on the planet. Over there on our right - see? - it's BCCI, the crash that stunned an industry. Coming up we have the Triads, the dreaded Chinese mobs who've made such a killing in Hong Kong and Macao. And round the bend - if you squint you can almost see - yes, the Russians are coming.

The whole book feels like a summary. It is knowledgeable and concise, but not quite detailed enough to be truly exhilarating. The bibliography is impressive, and a dead giveaway: the book is clearly based on a severe cull of libraries and press reports. We never have our faces pressed up against the glass, so are bound to miss the voices of the participants, the texture and colour of life in my beautiful money launderette.

Nor is the tone quite sober enough to be worrying. On the contrary, Robinson flicks out fact after fact like a tipsy gambler slapping down cards in a casino.

He especially likes one-line paragraphs.

Comme ca.

At one point, trying to catch the atmosphere of an audience with Mr Big, he writes:

'This time he was taken to meet the boss - Pablo Escobar.

'Jimmy went through his spiel again.

'Escobar listened intently.

'Jimmy figured he had a sale.'

Is this a poem? Such intrusive rhetorical shouting suggests a lack of faith in the material, as if mere volume can make a familiar tune seem bold and new. Much of what follows, in truth a catalogue of alarming facts, seems overstated and somehow implausible.

This is a pity, because the facts are indeed alarming. Robinson claims - though the figures are understandably vague - that washing dirty money is the world's third largest business. There are plenty of ways to transform illicit cash into a legitimate bank account: you can buy something - antiques, a yacht - and then sell it again; you can open lots of accounts with small, unremarkable sums and then merge them; you can play the cash through a casino or racetrack and chalk it down as winnings; or you can make it worth the bank manager's while not to look inside your safe deposit box.

Robinson concentrates on this last technique, and has an enjoyable blast at the lax regulations that add softener to the world's money-washing machine. But naturally the book's highlights are the colourful individual instances. Quite a few senior crooks have attempted to buy their way out of trouble, but only Pablo Escobar had the resources and cheek to offer to pay off Colombia's national debt. Escobar, we also learn, at one time had so much cash to send to the launderette that he let dollars 40m rot in a Californian basement - the washing machine, alas, was already full.

There are many other stories of the influence of the big laundrymen. The Yakuza in Japan once started blackmailing corporations by threatening to, er, disrupt their shareholders' meetings, so 2,000 companies got together and arranged to meet on the same day - a manoeuvre presumably inspired by the way the old Western wagon trains formed circles to repel the Injuns. Did you know that the United Kingdom once declined dollars 190m from the American authorities? According to Robinson, this was Britain's half of a dollars 380m seizure by the Drug Enforcement Administration. It was offered as a contribution to the war against drugs; Whitehall, bless it, did not feel able to accept the money with such a string attached.

Robinson is alert to the central fact in all this, which is the raging demand for drugs in Western countries, especially America. 'A peasant,' he writes, 'doesn't need a degree from the London School of Economics to know that if he harvests opium poppy to satisfy a booming market, he'll feed his family, and if he harvests sorghum or sugar or tobacco leaf for a shrinking market, he'll starve.' It is, ironically, a triumph of free market economics: production responding to demand.

Robinson goes further, and suggests that just as the West's banks spent the Seventies recycling petrodollars to the Third World in unrepayable loans, so the liquidity of international banking is now guaranteed by what he calls narcodollars. According to the Bank for International Settlements, the float of drug-based assets in the banking system is around dollars 500bn, a tidy sum by any standards.

One of these narcodollars is glued to the front cover of the book, an attempt to dramatise the shout line, which goes: 'This real dollar has been used in a drug deal. It contains minute traces of cocaine.' This is old, even for a chestnut. Nor is it easy to tell whether it is merely a shifty sales gimmick (they could have bribed some bent artist to forge a dollar, and knocked a buck off the price), or something more serious - the publishers washing a mountain of dirty bills before the Feds catch up with them.

Still, that 'minute trace' sounded interesting. It only took a moment to scalpel it free. One whiff, and I felt like a million dollars.