BOGOT'A, COLOMBIA — COLOMBIA has become the center of a criminal activity costing the United States millions of dollars and victimizing individuals in both industrialized and underdeveloped nations. The culprits in this case are not drug traffickers and their cocaine, but counterfeiters and their phony dollars. [US-Panama antidrug pact, Page 6.]
``In recent years, Colombia has become the top producer of counterfeit dollars outside of the United States,'' says Marino Radillo, a US Secret Service agent investigating the problem. He estimates that about 30 percent of fake US money circulating worldwide was produced in Colombia.
Mr. Radillo heads an eight-man Secret Service squad based in Miami. When not protecting the president on visits to Latin America, the group is pursuing the region's counterfeiters. Much of the agents' time is spent in Colombia, which far outpaces its neighbors in the amount of funny money produced.
In the last four years, Radillo's squad, cooperating with local police, has confiscated fake bills with a face amount of $46,281,990 in Latin America. Fully $20,986,090 of the total came from Colombia, whose nearest rival is Argentina, where $10,733,400 in counterfeit money was seized.
The Colombian share of bogus currency passed in the US rose from 21 percent in 1989 to 30 percent in 1990. Nearly $5,000,000 in false dollars made in Colombia last year were confiscated in the US.
``The activity has increased significantly,'' Radillo says. ``Much of the money is lost by innocent people who had a false note passed on to them.''
Counterfeiters here also produce other nations' currencies, including those of Venezuela, Peru, Brazil and even Cuba, not to mention millions of fake Colombian pesos churned out yearly.
In light of the growing problem, Radillo made one of his frequent trips to Colombia, this time to supervise the start-up of an intensive 90-day program of cooperation between Secret Service agents and Colombian police.
``The police here have a lot of things on their mind - bombings, assassinations, kidnappings,'' Radillo says. ``We're working with them in order to keep the problem on the agenda.''
Colombia's counterfeit greenbacks are worrisome, not just because of their quantity, but also because of their quality.
``Colombian counterfeiters are the best in the world,'' says one of the country's senior police officials, asking not to be identified. Another police officer, Capt. Irwin Sanchez, says most Colombian falsifiers are older people with the experience and start-up capital needed to undertake a technical production process.
``This is not a business for small-time criminals,'' says Captain Sanchez, head of the judicial police general investigations office, which looks into counterfeiting. ``Almost all of these people have technical training,'' Radillo adds. ``They are not violent hoods like drug traffickers.''
Two methods are used by the counterfeiters. Both involve photographing real money and then transferring the image from the negatives to aluminum plates, used to print the spurious bills.
Although some counterfeiters employ common bond or other commercial paper, others bleach real dollar bills, then reprint them in higher denominations. The preference is 50s and 100s.
``These bills are much harder to detect, because they feel better to the touch,'' says Adrian Roman Gonz'alez, a special agent in Radillo's group. Colombian counterfeiters, he explains, have even learned to imitate the raised impression created by the US Treasury's intaglio printing method.
The most technically advanced groups of counterfeiters work in the capital of Bogot'a and the southern city of Cali. But police officials have recently detected counterfeiting rings in Ibague in central Colombia and in Cucuta on the border with Venezuela.
The organizations often are comprised of scores of people from the printers of false money, to wholesale buyers, to ``circulators'' who pawn it off on unsuspecting people. The criminals work either for a percentage of the total profit or they buy the dollars at a reduced rate. A false $100 bill currently sells for as little as $1.75 or as much as $17.50, depending on the quality.
Most of those duped at the end of the counterfeiting chain live in other countries.
``It is much easier to pass a false dollar abroad than in Colombia, because here there are very few transactions carried out in foreign currency,'' says a police sergeant in Sanchez's investigations office. Many Colombians planning to circulate fake bills in the United States simply carry the cash with them when they fly north. Larger amounts are often smuggled in hollowed-out books and other ingenious packages.
``Customs is working harder to detect counterfeit dollars and has been stopping about two large shipments a month,'' Radillo says. ``But that's still just a tiny fraction of the stuff.''
Fake dollars also float in Colombia, he adds, but very rarely among the country's notorious cocaine bosses. Though drug deals are usually done in dollars here, police say the cocaine magnates avoid slipping their customers bogus bills for fear of spoiling future business and risking retribution.
One thing Colombian counterfeiters do share with drug traffickers is a seeming ability to sidestep the country's justice system.
``Most of the counterfeiters we catch have been in jail before,'' says the sergeant in the national police office. ``They stay there for about one and a half years before walking out and going back to work.''
Radillo says one of the goals of the Secret Service's 90-day mission is to stop this ``revolving door'' by convincing judges to apply stiff sentences. He complains of one 80-year-old counterfeiter who has been jailed 17 times.
``He's driving me nuts. He's too old to put in jail again, so he spends his time advising other counterfeiters on methods. My only hope is to make an informer out of him. I'm trying.''
Until recently, one of the main planting fields for fake money was Colombia's black market in currency. Many dealers circumventing the government's controlled exchange rate either knowingly or unknowingly buy and sell counterfeit dollars, police say.
When the government freed the exchange rate earlier this year, the black market dried up. At his Bogot'a office, Sanchez says he thinks this will reduce Colombian trading in fake dollars.
But Radillo disagrees, arguing that counterfeiters will simply ply their trade at bank windows.
``Tellers are just as careless as black market changers, if not more so,'' he says. He adds that 90 percent of even the best counterfeit money can be detected by untrained, but careful, eyes.
``We get passed bad money because we don't look at what we're getting.''