LONG stretches of unmonitored frontier, well-established organized crime families, and easy access to Colombia and North America have made Venezuela one of the biggest money-laundering havens in the Western Hemisphere, narcotics and legal experts say. Until last week, it wasn't a crime.
Antidrug forces claimed a major victory Aug. 13 with the passage of reforms that for the first time make money laundering a criminal act in Venezuela.
The amendments outlaw anonymous bank accounts, force politicians to reveal the sources of campaign contributions, establish more rigorous customer identification procedures, and impose stiff penalties of up to 25 years in prison on groups and individuals who help legitimize money earned from drug activity.
While many legal and narcotics experts hope the reforms will finally control the problem, skeptics say the judicial and political elements of society are so corrupt they doubt the new regulations will make a difference. Venezuelan banks have been required to report all transactions exceeding $10,000 since 1990, but this law has been considered ineffective, because the records reportedly go unchecked for suspicious activity. Unnecessary precaution
State Department officials in Washington say money-laundering practices are becoming more sophisticated, but local authorities say the activity is so blatant and prevalent in Venezuela that such methods aren't necessary.
"All the schemes are for naught when it comes to laundering money here," says a United States Embassy official in Caracas. "It's a haven - there are no extraditions, no deportations.... I would call it the nexus in the Western hemisphere."
Authorities say the leading players include major Italian families connected with the Sicilian Mafia, a group of Lebanese families, and allies of Colombian drug cartels. "Nobody could ever destroy the tentacles that are already here," he adds.
At a United Nations meeting earlier this year in Vienna, Venezuela was termed the laundering capital of Latin America and a key cocaine transit point from Colombia to North America and Europe.
The estimates of the amount of money laundered through Venezuela each year varies widely because the activity is so hard to pin down. While the US State Department officially puts the Venezuela number at about $3 billion, US Embassy officials here estimate that $25-30 billion is laundered annually in Venezuela. They say some $120 billion is laundered through the US each year.
The reformed law, which was approved unanimously by Congress, won't become official until it is published and signed, says Najah Kafouni de Rauseo, a lawyer with the National Committee Against the Use of Illicit Drugs. She said it is not clear whether the law will go into effect immediately or be phased in over time. Impact of new law
Some bankers and antidrug officials were reluctant to comment on the new law's potential impact, but members of the Banking Association of Venezuela several weeks ago announced support of the reforms while playing down the magnitude of the activity.
Former Justice Minister Juan Martin Echeverria accused the Venezuelan government of ignoring the problem of drugs.
"Venezuela is progressively becoming a haven for the drug barons and their money, as evident by the purchase of frontier ranches, luxurious offices and apartments in cities, and the insolently displayed wealth," Mr. Echeverria wrote in the El Universal newspaper.
But Superior Court Judge Frank Vecchionacce claims estimates of laundering in Venezuela are grossly exaggerated, as are accusations of political corruption connected with drug money. He says that if billions of dollars were pumped into the Venezuelan system it would create an economic catastrophe, and that has not happened, he adds.
Mr. Vecchionacce believes the existing law was sufficient and says politicians supported the reform because the narcotics war is a lucrative business and a hot campaign theme for the upcoming December presidential elections. "They say people are buying all these apartments, haciendas, but where are they? Where are these people? The best political business is the war against drugs," he says.
A former head of a Venezuelan police force who supports the reforms says these luxury apartments can be found throughout the country - from the ritzy neighborhoods of Caracas to the beach-front properties of Margarita Island and Puerto La Cruz.
While laundering puts money into the Venezuelan economy, he says, it provides no socioeconomic benefits because it raises the price of real estate and luxury goods and brings with it a whole host of social problems.
Rosa del Olmo, a sociologist and criminologist who concentrates on narcotics issues, says the new law is potentially dangerous because it will be difficult to regulate and enforce.
"I don't think the drug business can be regulated with laws," Ms. Del Olmo says. "I'm not denying drugs are a problem, but they're only part of all this mess. The biggest problem in this country is not drugs - it's political corruption."