Deals are carefully arranged by the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world’s largest drug trafficking groups, to repatriate profits from U.S. drug sales back to Mexico disguised as routine remittances, Reuters reports. For one Mexican mother, it was easy money as she struggled to make ends meet cleaning houses. She estimated she had earned some $17,000 over the years recruiting others into the scheme and cashing remittances totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, but never too much or too often, to avoid scrutiny by banking authorities. She said a neighbor got her into the scheme, and that she had never met her bosses in person. “Everything was by phone,” she said, “and the phone numbers changed every time.” The woman showed WhatsApp messages on her phone that she said were from traffickers coordinating her remittance pickups and drop-offs. One from early 2022 said: “They are waiting for you outside. They know who you are. Give them the money.” Remittances sent by migrant workers are a lifeline for millions of people in Mexico, where outlets to pick up these funds are commonly present. Authorities say Mexican drug cartels are piggybacking on this legal network to repatriate earnings from U.S. narcotics sales.
The Culiacán mother is part of an army of civilians recruited by the Sinaloa Cartel and other drug syndicates across Mexico to help move illicit drug profits earned in the United States south of the border. The cartels are rich in cash from U.S. sales of fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and marijuana. The criminal scheme essentially uses the vast legal network of money-transfer firms that help migrant laborers send money home to their families. Remittances to Mexico, nearly all of which come from the U.S., hit a record $58.5 billion last year, according to data from Mexico’s central bank. That’s an increase of $25 billion, or 74 percent, compared to 2018, when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to power. As legitimate remittances have ballooned due to the pandemic, it has become ever easier for cartels to disguise their ill-gotten gains in small transfers sent to average people across Mexico who have no obvious links to organized crime, according to U.S. and Mexican security officials. In a sign of growing concern within the U.S. government, the office of the Director of National Intelligence included for the first time this year in its annual threat assessment report the “exploitation of legitimate remittances channels” by transnational crime organizations to launder money.