Border Businesses Lose Bank Accounts Amid Money Laundering Fears
In the border town of Nogales, Mexico, the lunch crowd is settling in at La Roca restaurant. Its live music and traditional cuisine have made it a landmark for 43 years.
The prices are listed in dollars, and many of the diners come in from Arizona. The ownership is American, and so was the restaurant's bank account and credit card until a couple months ago.
Some U.S. banks are closing the accounts of certain customers along the Mexican side of the border. It's part of an effort to stay in line with U.S. anti-money laundering regulations, but it's taking a toll on legitimate border business.
A few months ago, La Roca's owner Alicia Martin got a call from Chase Bank. The bank said it was closing some foreign business accounts, including the account for Martin's restaurant.
"And I was like, 'What? What are you talking about? You know, why?' " Martin recalls. "And she says, 'Well, because we can't monitor you.'
"I said, 'I have been with you for over 40 years, and you can't monitor me?' " Martin says. "And she said, 'Well don't take it personally ... because there have been some people that have been with us for 70 years, and we're closing their accounts as well.' "
Chase spokesperson Mary Jane Rogers confirmed the bank made a business decision to close fewer than 5,000 small foreign business accounts as it seeks to comply with anti-money laundering regulations.
Regulators have cited the bank in the past for not having adequate anti-money laundering controls. In fact, that's one reason Chase had to pay billions in fines in recent years.
Martin thought about moving her account to another U.S. bank, but she heard others might soon follow Chase's lead.
"What happens to those of us who do business transparently, and it's honest business?" she says. "I don't know, I feel like we're being punished for somebody else's deeds."
The Southwest border is seen as a high-risk area for money laundering because of drug and human smuggling organizations. Paul Hickman, president and CEO of the Arizona Bankers Association, says banks are trying to do the right thing.
"They don't want to help facilitate illegal conduct," Hickman says. "And if they find a concentration of high-risk accounts, they're going to scrutinize those, and they're going to decide, alright, what kind of resources do we have to police this?"
And he says if banks don't have the resources to properly monitor certain accounts, they will not want to "put society at risk by continuing to potentially facilitate this kind of trade."
Lately, the federal government has been tightening banking regulations, especially on anti-money laundering laws in particular.
"Most of the major banks are either facing enforcement actions, or there have been enforcement actions," says Dennis Lormel, who used to run the FBI's financial crimes program and now consults on anti-money laundering issues.
HSBC came under fire a few years ago for failing to stop a Mexican drug cartel from laundering billions of dollars through its banks. But as banks and regulators try to prevent that kind of crime, it's not always obvious which client accounts should be closed.
"What has been going on in the border area of the United States actually has been a point of contention between the government and the private sector for at least six months, maybe even longer," says John Byrne, the executive vice president of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists.
Byrne says the regulatory environment has been changing lately, so banks fear they could be slapped with fines or forced to make expensive reforms if they make even small mistakes monitoring a risky customer. For that reason, banks sometimes decide it is a better business decision to close certain accounts rather than take on the risk.
Regulators and law enforcement also say it's counterproductive for banks to close too many accounts, since it sends transactions underground.
In recent months, some banks began closing the accounts of check cashers, currency exchange dealers, money transmitters and other types of money service businesses. These types of businesses have a reputation for being vulnerable to money laundering.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network released a a statement in November urging banks to consider these businesses on a case-by-case basis.
"Refusing financial services to an entire segment of the industry can lead to an overall reduction in financial sector transparency that is critical to making the sector resistant to the efforts of illicit actors," the statement said.
"This is a very complex subject," Lormel says. "There's no easy answer, there's no easy fix. And unfortunately some very honest and innocent people are getting caught up losing their banking relationships."
Cattle broker Juan Carlos Ochoa says he is another one of the honest, innocent people who lost his bank account. Ochoa is a dual citizen who imports cattle into Douglas, Ariz. He runs this feedlot on the Mexican side of the border.
"The capacity is 5,000 heads of cattle," Ochoa says in his native Spanish. "And we are full."
Ochoa says business is good, except for the stress of where to keep his money. After Chase closed his account, he moved to Wells Fargo. Then Wells Fargo closed his account too, without offering an explanation.
Lori Brown, a spokesperson for Wells Fargo, wrote in an email that the bank evaluates all of its relationships for risk and return.
Ochoa needs a U.S. account, so American buyers can easily wire him his payments.
"I can't be without a bank account because every day I have to buy and sell cattle," Ochoa says. "Every day."
But at the same time, a number of major banks have been closing branches on the Arizona border. There's only one bank left in Douglas that hasn't yet rejected Ochoa.
"The day there are no more banks left I don't know what I am going to do," he says.
Ochoa says the irony is this trend could force some border businesses to use cash. And that makes transactions less transparent and more vulnerable to money laundering.
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