UAE provides the road map as police foil global drug cartels by 'following the money'

Emirates is proving it is no pushover when it comes to fighting financial crime

The UAE is proving that it is a key player in combating financial crime. AP
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In the film All the President’s Men, the mysterious “Deep Throat” character, who points Robert Redford in the right direction, exhorts him to “follow the money”.

Redford, who plays the journalist, Bob Woodward, sticks to his task, with Dustin Hoffman as fellow investigator Carl Bernstein, and the plot of Watergate is unravelled and with it the demise of US President Richard Nixon is sealed. If you want to get to the Mr Big, the one who is really in charge, if you want to establish the truth, you trace the money trail.

The famous quote, while in the film, is not in the book of the same name by Bernstein and Woodward. Mark Felt, the former associate director of the FBI, who later admitted to being Deep Throat, said he had never uttered those words.

Nobody said it. But in the drug cops TV drama The Wire as well, detective Lester Freamon says: “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money.” Subsequently, Barack Obama and David Simon, creator of The Wire, met and chatted. Simon, himself a former journalist, a police reporter, recalled how he first saw a police force in drugs-hit Baltimore who believed they could “arrest their way” out of the problem, that they could makes lots of street-level arrests and the trade and the spin-off crime and issues it caused would simply disappear. This stance was being repeated in inner cities across the US.

If you want to get to the Mr Big, the one who is really in charge, if you want to establish the truth, you trace the money trail

All that occurred was that those caught with intention to supply would end up in jail and become more hardened. In the meantime, others were all too willing to take their place. No progress was being made, quite the contrary. Insufficient attention was being paid to those more difficult to snare, the gangsters higher up the chain. Too little firepower was focused on following the money.

Journalist Ed Vulliamy has written extensively on US efforts to crack down on the Mexican drug cartels. “There is a third taboo [the first is that the trade is fuelled by the insatiable demand in the US for narcotics, second is that the weapons used by the gangsters often originate in the US] that has not yet been broken: the question of money, the narco-greenbacks, the $323 billion a year. Where does it go? How does it travel from the cartels back into the economy? What financial institutions are helping to launder these dollars? Former customs special agent Lee Morgan said to me, ‘Kinda strange, ain’t it, how Washington’s got all this technology, but never goes after the money?’”

Europol took down a European 'super cartel' with six arrests in Dubai. Photo: Screengrab

That is changing. Governments around the world are chasing the money and seizing criminal accounts and assets. According to the president of the Financial Action Task Force, the global money laundering and terrorism financing watchdog, Raja Kumar: “Asset Recovery needs to be ingrained in the mindset of all relevant agencies as a core aspect of criminal investigations. Not ancillary, not a 'nice to do’ but a must do to disempower criminals by seizing their illicit assets.”

Interpol’s secretary general Juergen Stock said: “The magnitude of illicit profits, and the velocity at which billions are moving across borders, is deeply worrying. Organised crime groups are undermining global financial systems and inflicting huge losses on businesses and individuals alike. We must do more to deliver the significant operational impact that is needed today. By ambitiously pursuing every solution, every piece of actionable data, we will bring these illicit flows out of the dark and back to the legitimate economy.”

In its latest round of country evaluations, the Global Coalition to Fight Financial Crime singles out two for praise. Italy, “where the threat from organised crime is not only very high but is recognised and acted upon as a true national security issue with a response and an approach which delivers results found nowhere else, at least when it comes to asset recoveries”. And UAE, which has made “significant progress reporting the 5th highest results overall and 2nd as a percentage of estimated criminal proceeds for asset confiscations after Italy. The creation and leadership from the Executive Office for Money Laundering and Counter Terrorist Financing, established in 2021, has accelerated the Emirates response to asset confiscation from what was approximately amounts recovered of US$26 million a year (between 2013-2108) to the more than half a billion US dollars for last year.”

Ramon Abbas, known as Hushpuppi, faces decades in jail if convicted of alleged frauds worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Photo: Instagram

That UAE total is set to climb higher still, further giving the lie to any notion that just because the UAE is a magnet for international wealth, the country is somehow a pushover when it comes to financial crime. Two cases reinforce the point. This month, Hushpuppi, the Nigerian Instagram influencer, was jailed for 11 years in the US for online fraud and money laundering. Real name Ramon Abbas, Hushpuppi flaunted his wealth on his social media pages, which had 2.8 million followers, until his arrest at a luxury apartment in Dubai two years ago. The police seized Dh150 million (£33.9 million) in cash, 13 luxury cars, 21 computers and 47 smartphones. Hushpuppi was wanted for fraud in Europe, the US and Nigeria. Police said email addresses for 800,000 potential victims were discovered, and that the gang could have scammed as much as Dh1.6 billion (£360 million) from victims.

This week, a European ‘super cartel’ that controlled a third of the continent’s cocaine trade was busted by police making dozens of arrests across six countries, including the UAE. Almost £22 million worth of assets, including 30 tonnes of cocaine, supercars, luxury villas and piles of cash were seized. Thanks to new co-operation efforts between countries to combat money laundering and drug trafficking, the international operation saw six “high-value targets” arrested in Dubai.

UAE has now been cited as providing “an example to learn from and a roadmap for others to consider following”. In chasing the money, the world of the international criminal can be made to look a whole lot smaller.

Chris Blackhurst is the author of 'Too Big To Jail: Inside HSBC, the Mexican drug cartels and the greatest banking scandal of the century' (Macmillan)

Published: November 29, 2022, 12:45 PM