Narco money laundering

Narco money laundering

From a young age, Jaime Beltrán had been devoted to painting. But it never earned him enough to live on, so he gave it up and went into drug trafficking.

His administration skills opened doors and allowed him to work with South American cartels.

He was imprisoned for five years for money laundering. There he revived his love of painting and since then he has made his living from it. Eighteen months ago he came out of prison with a new outlook on life.

In conversation with BBC Mundo, he remembers what his life was like as a money launderer.

"There's a lot of talk these days about the fight against drug trafficking and drug dealing here in Mexico City ... To punish a way of life that was left behind 30 years ago, and now say: "We don't want them to do it anymore" is absurd I think.

You say: "They are poisoning people," and they will say: "We are not forcing anyone." And to a certain extent, they are right ...

I lived half my childhood and teenage years in Sinaloa. There you would get your money and say "I'm off to catch the bus and get a drink", while the children of the narcos would come along in the latest cars with gold-buckled belts. They didn´t have to do anything for them, their father just gave it to them.

Then I moved to Guadalajara, I started working but it didn't go very well. My average income was around 1,000 pesos (US$100) every two months. This was 1996. And believe me, I did my very best, doing an honest day's work ... I really worked hard but my income didn't increase. I did sculptures and craftwork, and people would say "very nice", but they didn't buy them.

I started seeing people connected to the narcos and they said "hey, come and work for us, you're a bright guy." And so they gave me work, administration and financial stuff .. that was my connection to them. It was a strange situation to find myself in, to go from earning 1,000 pesos every two months to US$1,000 a month.

I never had anything to do with the actual handling of drugs, never. I would help them when they said "hey, change these dollars for me or take them to Mexico." I asked no questions.

Among the many dodgy dealings, they don't tell you where the money comes from. Making easy money is easy to say but when it comes down to it, it´s another matter. When you are handling drugs or money you risk being robbed, you risk prison, you risk your life.

And the risk of being robbed is on several fronts. You are at risk from the authorities, the drug traffickers, the thieves, the people who specialise in robbing those who run these businesses.

Indeed, risk is an inherent part of the job, when you are handling US$1 million that don't belong to you, you say to yourself: "OK, if I get robbed but they don´t kill me, will they believe me ... that I was robbed?"

I had a total of around US$1.5 million in my care. A normal day would consist of taking the money to bureaux de change, it could be large denomination notes or small ones in sums of US$100,000. I would count them, go and have lunch ... Whether you work in a bank or a bureau de change, your job is handling money.

Nearly always the problem was they would hand over the money then run off. When you came to count it, some would be missing. Wherever you handle items of value, there's always the risk of robbery. You always get "stealing by instalments", when people pinch a bit here and there and they say: "It´s a million, nobody will miss US$4,000 o US$5,000. That was always a problem.

I was recruited for my honesty, so to speak, because those are difficult posts to fill ... whether it's being in charge of goods or money, you can't just employ anybody. Even so everyone knows that something´s not quite right, but it´s a job in the end.

Although it wasn't exactly legal, because of the supposed source of the money, I always had integrity and people respected me for that.

But I could cope with that, (that is was illegal) especially when the cheque arrived - that helped me to deal with it (laughs) ... but yes, I have to say I knew what I was doing wasn't right.

They only gave 1%. People think that because you are involved with drug trafficking you earn pots of money, but that's a myth.

Almost all the profits go to those who bring the goods in, and those who are involved in dealing wholesale and street deals. The rest of us don't really earn that much.

There's nearly always someone who gets paid for carrying (the money), and if they get caught, they'll get five to ten years imprisonment for earning 100,000 pesos (US$10,000). And don't think it's something you do everyday ... if you earn something once a month, that's a lot. So, compared with salaries paid by other high risk work, it's not that much ..

I didn't work with any Mexicans nor did I have any connection with any Mexican cartel. I only dealt with foreigners who wanted to take their money and came via Mexico out of necessity.

It was always educated people, most of them with good careers, smart suits and briefcases who had businesses in their own countries ... I never had anything to do with tooled-up guys in big hats and fancy boots.

I used to take money to Bogota and Lima, to these smart offices in corporate buildings. I would go to a normal hotel, everybody wore suits, you never saw anyone armed, nor any of the other stereotypical trappings associated with drug trafficking.

I think the man who owned the money was an administrator of some enterprise and he also had this as an illegal enterprise. At the end of the day, you do business and you sell.

I got stopped at the airport in Mexico City and I had US$400,000 on me. The narcos got in touch with a friend of mine, they said there wouldn't be a problem, they would pay for lawyers etc, ... not because of me obviously, but to recover the money.

So I went to prison for five years. Inside you become more mature because you think about things before you do anything. When you are out and about you can get away with things in many ways.

You ask somebody for a loan, you don't pay them back and just go somewhere else. You leave your girlfriend and run away. In other words you do things that you can't do when you are deprived of your freedom. In prison, if you ask someone for a loan and you don't pay them back, you could end up dead. There's no running away.

When I came out, I tried not to fall back (into bad ways). I didn't seek them out although some of them wished well, saying how good it was I was out of prison. "Whenever you like, I can help" they say. "No, no, let's leave things be!" I say" (laughs).