Dirty Money on the Big Screen: Why Media Portrayals of Money Laundering Matter
15 Nov 2019

Generally speaking, “money laundering” is not at the top of anyone’s agenda as they go about their daily lives.  The average person might occasionally read a news article about a drug dealer convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering or hear a passing mention on a television show, but for most, that’s as far as it goes.

Dirty money and its associated crimes are, however, becoming a hot topic in mass media and entertainment, and this has the potential benefit of increasing general awareness of their harm to society. Greater media attention on money laundering can even drive changes in behaviour in everyone from the common citizen to the compliance officer tasked with flagging illicit funds.

Take for example The Laundromat. The October 2019 release of the Netflix movie created some controversy when Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, the attorneys at the centre of the ‘Panama Papers’ scandal, filed a lawsuit in a Connecticut court to try and stop the film from being released on grounds of defamation.  The effort failed and the film was released on 18th October 2019 with the case transferred to a California court.

The 2016 Panama Papers scandal involved the leak of a staggering 11.5 million documents (2.6 terabytes-worth) from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca–data that exposed the hidden ownership and financial affairs of innocent investors, money launderers, tax cheats and national leaders who had parked their wealth offshore. In the UK, the leak raised questions for former Prime Minister David Cameron on holdings he had in his late father’s offshore company Blairmore Holdings Inc.

The significant media attention on the Panama Papers scandal in 2016 saw to it that tax transparency, beneficial ownership and “shell” companies became the topics of discussion amongst the general public and policymakers alike.  Whilst The Laundromat movie may deliver entertainment with a cast of some of Hollywood’s top A-List actors, it also squeezes into a digestible 96 minutes some key concepts and issues surrounding the scandal that may intrigue and surprise general audiences.

Based on a true story

The Laundromat isn’t alone in tackling such a subject.  In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of TV shows and movies focusing on the crimes that lead to money laundering, including Breaking Bad, Ozark, The Infiltrator, Narcos and McMafia. Some are based on real-life events, such as The Infiltrator, which highlights how US agent Robert Mazur (played by Brian Cranston) worked undercover to infiltrate a Colombian drug cartel. The TV series Narcos follows agents Steve Murphy (played by Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Pena (played by Pedro Pascal) in their pursuit of Pablo Escobar and drug cartels.

Even the 1983 film Scarface was littered with realities.  The movie charts the meteoric rise and ultimate fall of Cuban refugee Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino), who arrives in Miami and makes his way to the top of the drug game with the aid of “professionals” that facilitate the money laundering of his profits from drug trafficking.  His banker (Jerry the banker) happily accepts sacks of cash brought in by Montana’s henchmen, and his lawyer (George Sheffield) is all too eager to advise him on his illicit ventures.

Although the movie was released over 35 years ago, it reflects realities that haven’t changed much in the interim, as highlighted by the 2016 undercover investigation filmed by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Global Witness. The watchdog group approached 13 New York law firms with the intention of raising suspicions of money laundering.  One individual involved in the investigation claimed to be an African minister who had accumulated millions of dollars and was looking to purchase a yacht and a Gulfstream jet and needed to get the funds into the US financial system undetected.  Although these were all approaches for services and no money was actually moved, the results were shocking because all but one of the lawyers had suggestions on how to move the funds.  The undercover videos are available on the Global Witness website and there are many cases in the public domain where both lawyers and accountants have actually facilitated money laundering.

Some may be surprised to learn the fictional Tony Montana’s Bolivian cocaine supplier, Alejandro “Alex” Sosa (played by Paul Shenar), was based on the real-life Bolivian drug trafficker Roberto Suarez Gomez, who was referred to as the “King of Cocaine”.  Gomez, who was from a wealthy family, was said to be the leader of the Santa Ana Cartel known as “La Corporacion” and the supplier of coca paste to Pablo Escobar.  He is even said to have offered his surrender to US authorities on the condition that they pay off Bolivia’s national debt and to have written open letters to then-US President Ronald Reagan, charging him with coca eradication in Bolivia in order to protect purported coca plantations in California. More disturbing is the fact that associates of Gomez were said to include the Nazi Klaus Altman-Barbie (known the “Butcher of Lyon”) and his cousin Luis Arce Gomez, who backed the violent 1980 Bolivian coup d’etat that gave him control over the cocaine supply out of Bolivia.

US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Michael Levine worked undercover and investigated the Gomez operation.  The experiences detailed in his books The Big White Lie and Deep Cover are highly recommended reading for all AML professionals.  Both books would make excellent movies, bringing Levine’s unprecedented access to the Andean narco-underworld to rich cinematic life.

Then there are recent documentaries focused on illicit funds. HSBC customers who had happened to watch the Netxflix series Dirty Money may have been surprised to learn that, according to court documents, an affiliate of their bank once allowed a drug cartel to design “specially shaped boxes that fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows. The drug traffickers would send numerous boxes filled with cash through the teller windows for deposit into HSBC Mexico accounts.”  HSBC was handed a $1.9 billion fine in the US in 2012–a pittance compared to its profits–though not a single employee of the bank went to jail.

The whale behind The Wolf

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street provided an unexpected twist for audiences when US prosecutors accused its production company, Red Granite Pictures (co-founded by the step-son of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak), of using dirty money to help fund the project. Red Granite Pictures agreed to settle a lawsuit with the US government for $60 million in 2018.  US prosecutors claimed the film was financed by money misappropriated from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which was a state fund for the benefit of the Malaysian people.

The 1MDB scandal involves over $3 billion of Malaysian state funds being misappropriated and centres on a relatively unknown figure named Low Taek Jho (known as “Jho Low”), who is alleged to have significantly benefitted from the scheme.  Najib has been charged with abuse of power and money laundering in connection to the 1MDB scandal, while Low remains wanted by Malaysian authorities.

If one were to read the court filings and the details surrounding the 1MDB scandal, they would find all the makings of a blockbuster movie.  A book entitled Billion Dollar Whale has been written about the 1MDB scandal by The Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope.  Upon release of the book in 2018, rather than target the authors or publisher, Low’s London-based lawyers sent letters to booksellers threatening legal action on grounds of libel laws if they sold it.  If anyone in the UK wanted to get a copy of the book before September 2019, they would have had to source it from the US or elsewhere.  It was finally released in the UK in September 2019 despite the attempts to block its release.  When invited by Bradley to attend the UK book launch this year, I suggested to him the book has the makings of a good movie, as it is an interesting story that needs to be told. He explained that there was already “at least one producer interested in making it into a movie”.

‘TV will have to catch up with the AML world’

One of the standout TV shows on the theme of crime and money laundering in the UK is McMafia.  For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows Alex Godman, the British-raised son of a Russian crime family, as he tries to build his own legitimate business in finance but is quickly drawn into the criminal world.  The Season 1 finale bears a striking resemblance to today’s reality and shows that different organised crime groups are willing to work with one another.

With an expected release of Season 2 soon, one of the creators of the show, Hossien Amini (Hoss), took time out from his busy schedule in the summer to talk about the show and money laundering.

“What I found eye-opening was that crime is so much more globalised today.  You could have a criminal organisation in one part of the world working with another in a totally different part of the world,” he said.

“Gone are the days when the focus was on criminals in bank-robbery heist movies with sacks of cash. Breaking into a safe is easy to depict on camera, yet today, electronic theft is interesting but the question is how do we capture it in film so that it is understandable for the audience?” he went on to say, after I shared the real-life story of the 2016 Bangladesh Bank cyber-heist.

Asked if he planned on making any more TV shows or movies on financial crime, he said, “I would love to explore doing other shows on the subject. The lines of crime and finance are blurred between modern crooks and bankers… The sums involved today are huge”.  There is potential for more TV shows and movies on the topic but “TV will have to catch up with the AML world”, as Hoss put it.

The potential for building public awareness of money laundering through movies and television shows is likely to grow.  In the UK, a 2019 Ofcom report found that video-on-demand and streamed content is becoming a central part of adults’ viewing landscape, up from 55% in 2017 to 60% in 2018.

Media won’t eradicate money laundering or its predicate offences but it can help educate audiences on the impact these crimes have.  The effect of media in creating awareness of money laundering shows some promise. The Panama Papers scandal has driven global discussions on regulatory changes related to tax evasion and corporate ownership, and in the UK, “unexplained wealth orders” have been nicknamed the “McMafia law”, generating interest from audiences questioning what it is all about.

Dev Odedra is an independent anti-money laundering and financial crime expert.  He has over a decade of experience in managing financial crime risk in the retail, corporate and investment banking sectors.  His expertise covers investigations, advisory and controls implementation and improvement.

This article is expressing personal opinions and is meant for information purposes only. The article does not intend to replace professional or legal advice. It is recommended that readers seek independent professional or legal advice, or speak to authorised persons/organisations.

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