In Latin America, Big Tobacco partners with money launderers, smugglers

Twenty miles off the northern coast of Venezuela lies a tiny, sunbaked island called Aruba. Like so many self-governing Caribbean islands that cling to the coast of the Americas, it has been a smugglers' paradise since colonial times. For decades, it also has been a linchpin in an illegal tobacco trade that Colombian authorities claim comprised as much as 90 percent of cigarettes sent into Colombia. The chief purveyors were two powerful Aruba families by the names of Mansur and Harms. For more than 50 years, Philip Morris — the main distributor in Latin America — was the Mansur Free Zone Trading Company, N.V. (The company's name changed to Glossco in 1999 after years of unwelcome scrutiny. President Clinton in 1996 publicly identified Aruba "as a major drug-transit country" and noted that "a substantial portion of the free-zone's businesses in Aruba are owned and operated by members of the Mansur family, who have been indicted in the United States on charges of conspiracy to launder trafficking proceeds.")

British American Tobacco, meanwhile, used the services of Roy Harms Jr.'s Romar Free Zone Trading Co., N.V., as its distributor for parts of Latin America, and R.J. Reynolds worked with his cousin Bryan Harms, who figured in the Canadian smuggling case. In August 1994, the United States indicted cousins Eric and Alex Mansur along with 52 others allegedly involved in a massive drug money-laundering enterprise. The investigation, dubbed Operation Golden Trash, targeted an alleged conspiracy that used narco dollars to purchase cigarettes, alcohol, and household electronics, which were sold to individuals and businesses in Colombia. The proceeds would then flow to cocaine barons. The Mansur cousins were extradited to Puerto Rico in March 1998. After posting more than $1 million in bond and spending several years on bail shuttling between Miami and Puerto Rico, they were allowed last October to return to Aruba.

Operation Golden Trash was part of a much larger money-laundering investigation called Operation Polar Cap. In the early 1990s, U.S. law enforcement authorities froze numerous bank accounts of tobacco distributors, charging they were part of a drug money-laundering conspiracy. According to the civil racketeering lawsuit filed last year against Philip Morris and BAT alleging complicity in tobacco smuggling and money laundering, the governors of 25 of Colombia's 32 states, plus the capital district of Bogot, charged that Philip Morris knew that these agents and distributors had been investigated and/or indicted by the United States for money laundering. But when Philip Morris learned that its distributors were accused of money laundering, it did not sever its business relationship. "Instead, they established a secretive and circuitous route by which they could sell cigarettes to those entities without detection by law enforcement," the lawsuit states.

A 'circuitous route'

Under this cloak-and-dagger system, customers had to order shipments by telephone through remote offices, including one in Uruguay. Customers were then directed to pay Maraval AG, a company in Basel, Switzerland, for the shipments. The lawsuit claims that delivery was then organized by a second Swiss company called Weitnauer, a multimillion-dollar global transport and retail company that deals in goods such as tobacco, alcohol, and jewelry and owns duty-free shops in North America. Philip Morris documents from January 1993 identify Weitnauer as a Philip Morris customer dealing in "various DF" markets, an apparent reference to duty-free markets. Thompson, the RJR sales manager convicted of smuggling, said Weitnauer was one of "the most widely used customers servicing the southern borders black market. They are financially encouraged to penetrate the border through the guise of normal duty free operation." Weitnauer was also listed in BAT documents as a "general trade" and "transit" client, though in the 1980s BAT refused to do any further business with Weitnauer apparently because the company was diverting cigarettes beyond BAT control.

Prior to 1997, the lawsuit states, the cigarettes were delivered from Philip Morris plant in Richmond, Virginia. After that year, Philip Morris changed its routing and first sent them to Belgium, where ownership was transferred to Weitnauer. From there they were shipped to Aruba or Panamanian free trade zones operated by the Mansurs, and then into Colombia's special customs zone, Maicao, just across the border from Venezuela. The racketeering lawsuit claims that this circuitous route was to distance Philip Morris from smuggling into Colombia and to make it difficult for investigators to distinguish between legitimate and contraband sales. For instance, a November 3, 1998, invoice obtained by the Center shows that Maraval AG billed a Mansur-owned company in Panama named Marlex, S.A., for the sale of $494,648 worth of U.S.-made Philip Morris cigarettes.

The lawsuit also charges that Philip Morris sold tobacco to smugglers in exchange for narco dollars in what is commonly referred to as the "black market peso exchange." Instead of repatriating narco dollars from their U.S. sales points, money launderers simply use them to purchase goods, which are then exported to Colombia and other Latin American countries and sold for pesos. The pesos then flow into the Colombian bank accounts of the drug barons. Philip Morris employees traveled to Colombia and entered the country illegally, the lawsuit claims, "paying bribes to ensure that their passports were not marked so as to reflect that they had entered Colombia." These employees were present in Colombia when their distributors received "large amounts of cash." The cash was then smuggled out of Colombia into Venezuela and deposited into banks and transferred into the coffers of Philip Morris, the lawsuit states.

One of Philip Morris' main distributors within Colombia was Santander Lopesierra, at one time a senator in the Liberal Party. Dubbed "the Marlboro Man" by the Colombian media, in reference to his alleged cigarette smuggling activities, Lopesierra is named in a U.S. federal court affidavit filed in conjunction with the Mansur money-laundering indictment. In that affidavit, an FBI agent working undercover says he was told by Jaime Tovar, one of the original defendants in the Mansur indictment, that Lopesierra was part of a scheme to convert narco dollars into shipments of goods bound for Colombia. "Lopesierra told Tovar that he was involved in the pool system of drug trafficking, whereby he would combine his load of drugs with those of other drug dealers into a single large shipment destined for the United States or Puerto Rico," the agent, Sergio Siberio, said in his 1997 affidavit in support of the Mansurs extradition from Aruba to the United States. "Individual traffickers in the United States received the drugs and sold them for U.S. currency. The traffickers would then deliver the cash to couriers approved by the drug lords who would convert the cash into cashier's checks made payable to specific businesses owned by Lopesierra and the Mansurs."

In other words, Lopesierra laundered narco dollars through the books of Mansur firms in Aruba, which he disguised as payments for items he was importing into Colombia, according to Tovar, a Lopesierra relative and former employee. Copies of canceled checks made out to Mansur-owned companies and deposited in Mansur-owned Interbank Aruba N.V. and submitted as evidence as part of the Colombian lawsuit against the tobacco companies demonstrate, lawyers assert, the circle by which drug money is laundered through cigarette purchases. "It's a matter of taking the money from the money launderer who initially wrote the checks, through the Philip Morris distributor, through the bank of that distributor, and up to Philip Morris," attorney Kevin Malone argued on November 27, 2000, in seeking a court order for further bank records related to his case.

Internal Philip Morris documents, released during the tobacco litigations of the late 1990s, include press clippings that described Lopesierra as a smuggler and "the Marlboro man." Lopesierra is also listed in a 1991 Philip Morris document [Philip Morris International Latin American Region: Strategic Plan, 1991-1993] as being one of the company's "Tax Free Customers," along with Mansur Trading, among others. The Mansur and Lopesierra names also surfaced in funding scandals that plagued the election campaign of former Colombian President Ernesto Samper. The Colombian news magazine Semana published in August 1995 details of what it said was a taped conversation between then-candidate Samper and a friend, Elizabeth Montoya de Sarria. She insisted that he should meet personally with "the people of Philip Morris," whom she further identified as "the presidents of Interbank." Later, Samper's campaign treasurer Santiago Medina told Colombia's attorney general's office, which investigated the Samper campaign irregularities, that two members of the Mansur family, who "handled the distribution of Marlboro in Central America," met with Samper in early 1994 and gave him more than $500,000. Colombia's Congress, which was dominated by Samper's Liberal Party, cleared him of any wrongdoing, and he left office in 1998. By then, however, the U.S. government had pulled his visa, claiming he was a "truly corrupt president."

Montoya, who press reports said had business ties to Lopesierra, was murdered in 1996 under as-yet unclear circumstances. No charges have ever been filed against Lopesierra for smuggling or money laundering, but a source in Colombia's attorney general's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lopesierra was under preliminary investigation for the creation of paramilitary or "self-defense" groups in the northern coastal region of the country. Philip Morris International told the Center in January 2000 that Philip Morris had cut all business ties with the Mansurs in 1998. However, the Mansurs own an Aruba company called Superior Tobacco Co. N.V., which manufactures Marlboro Red and Marlboro 100 cigarettes, according to an employee at Superior. Internal Philip Morris documents show that Superior Tobacco became a Philip Morris licensee in June 1966. A March 1996 Philip Morris Companies "Quarterly Directors Report" listed Superior Tobacco Co. N.V. of Aruba as a licensee. And according to the March 2000 issue of Tobacco Reporter, a magazine about the tobacco industry, Superior Tobacco still held a license agreement with Philip Morris. Company registry documents at the Aruba Chamber of Commerce show that all seven directors of Superior are Mansurs. The Mansurs also own Superior Tobacco Company in neighboring Curacao.

Under their October 11, 2000, bail modification order, the Mansur cousins were allowed to return to Aruba to live with their families and work as sales managers for Universal Brands, identified in court papers as an import-export company with offices in Aruba. Universal Brands is based in Curacao and is registered as "retailer of tobacco products." A source in Colombia's customs office, the DIAN, told the Center that Universal Brands exported Colombia-made cigarettes to Curacao in 2000. These Universal brand cigarettes have been showing up on the Venezuelan black market.

'Their management plan'

Allegations against BAT employees of smuggling, money laundering, bribery, and illegal entry into Colombia are similar to those against Philip Morris. Lawyers for Colombia's governors, who receive the revenue from taxes on cigarette sales, said in their lawsuit that BAT was "well aware" that virtually all of the cigarettes passing through its Aruba-based distributor were being smuggled. BAT's distributor was Roy Harms Romar. BAT "made these smuggled cigarettes a part of their management plan," the lawsuit states. The Center's investigation showed that Romar executives were treated by BAT to a posh hotel in the Knightsbridge section of London and tennis matches at Wimbledon. Beyond that, BAT employees would travel to Maicao, the entry point for most smuggled goods into the rest of Colombia, where they "would deal directly with cigarette smugglers, resolve customer complaints involving issues such as stale products, and would promote the sale of new products," the suit contends.

It goes on to charge that BAT employees were present when large amounts of cash, totaling as much as $1 million, were received by the distributors. In some cases, they received prepackaged cash covered in talcum powder. "This is the way in which narcotics traffickers commonly packaged and transferred large amounts of cash in order to prevent the detection of the scent of the narcotics on the currency," the lawsuit states. The distributors and the BAT employees then took the cash by car to Venezuela, where it was deposited in Venezuelan banks in exchange for cashier's checks. The checks were then transported either to banks in Miami or the Caribbean and, from there, the money was transferred to BAT's accounts in Louisville, Kentucky, or in the UK, the lawsuit claims.

BAT corporate documents indicate that the company was aware as early as 1991 of the possibility that drug money was used to buy its cigarettes as part of a money-laundering scheme. In a January 15, 1991, memo marked "Secret" from Latin American regional director Peter Hazel to BAT chairman Barry Bramley, regarding his trip to Aruba, Hazel said that he had met with Harms to discuss the "increasingly important amount of business" they were doing for BAT's Venezuelan subsidiary, Bigott. Hazel then stated that Harms "enlightened" him about "really rather a murky business . . . being whether drugs money could be being used."

On March 8, 1995, Keith Dunt, then BAT's regional director for Latin America, received an e-mail, forwarded from BAT's field office, about the "difficulty of obtaining clean $" that BAT's Venezuelan subsidiary had in January. "It was necessary, in December, to reduce the selling price from US $125 to US $96 per case, ie in line with Belmont HL price (such that Romar could then sell through at US $106 per case and receive clean US$)." Although tobacco companies claim to have no relationship with smugglers, lawyers representing the Colombian governors and the European Union contend "Philip Morris, BAT, and RJR operate their smuggling operations in almost identical fashions."

In a court filing in late February, the lawyers submitted corporate documents and correspondence, which they said demonstrated the extent to which tobacco companies "micro-manage" smuggling operations. A February 22, 1994, letter to Ed Lang, head of RJR-Macdonald, from attorneys for a by-then disgruntled Bryan Harms discusses the business relationship between the company and Harms, who was smuggling RJR cigarettes into Colombia. Other correspondence between RJR and Harms reveals the extent of the company's oversight and its collaboration with Harms. The letter, now in the court record, said that RJR had "zero percent of the back-door cigarette market into Colombia" when RJR approached Bryan Harms in 1989 about working with the company. The letter also describes the "Colombia backdoor ports of Maico [sic] and Turbo" through which Harms later pumped RJR's cigarettes. "Business was good," the letter states, "and in 1992 a volume of US $3,080,570.23 of RJR cigarettes were sold into Colombia."

The letter notes that the cigarettes came from plants in Canada and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. RJR shipped the Canadian cigarettes to Aruba via New York and the U.S. cigarettes via Miami. The cigarettes were then shipped by Harms company to Maicao. Cash payments out of Maicao were transported by Harms "representatives across the Venezuelan-Colombian border by car to Maracaibo" and then flown to Aruba. "As can be appreciated, a very high-risk operation," the letter states. Conflict between Harms and RJR was sparked by RJR's October 1992 decision to deal with a rival Spanish distribution company that had opened an office in Colombia. An angry Harms complained in the lawyers letter that RJR was wrong to disagree with his assessment that "only a token legal importation of 200 cases of cigarettes was required, since the market of cigarettes would continue to be dominated by smuggled (tax-free) cigarettes for years to come." The letter notes that the 200 cases of cigarettes imported legally would give RJR "the right to advertise its [sic] brands legally" and also the right to allow another distributor to "move his Maicao stocks with the documentation of the 200 cases as cover." The letter claims "this procedure has been used effectively for many years by other U.S. tobacco companies."

Even though illegal imports of cigarettes into Colombia have been declining due to increased policing, Colombian tax and customs authorities say they continue to seize large quantities of smuggled cigarettes, despite signed agreements with Philip Morris and BAT pledging them to do everything in their power to halt the illegal trade. Lawyers representing Colombia's governors and the European Union claim in their RICO action that "throughout the 1990s and continuing into the year 2000, the Philip Morris Defendants continued to knowingly sell cigarettes to smugglers, or distributors who sell to smugglers, and have gone to great lengths to conceal this fact from the various law enforcement agencies and customs agencies around the world charged with the monitoring of cigarette sales. For example, throughout 1999 and into the year 2000, the Philip Morris Defendants on numerous occasions notified prosecutors and customs officials within the government of Panama that there is currently no authorized dealer in the Colon Free Trade Zone in Panama for the tobacco products of the Philip Morris Defendants," the lawsuit says. "However, the Philip Morris Defendants continue to sell their products to persons in the Colon Free Trade Zone and conceal these."

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