Martin Woods had become an expert at spotting dirty money swilling around the banking system by the time he discovered his own employer—one of America’s leading banks—was helping to launder the profits of drug-dealing in Mexico.
Woods, from Liverpool, England, had become—as he puts it—"Dick Whittington, heading south to London, seeking fame and fortune." He worked in law enforcement for eighteen years, first as an officer and detective with the London Metropolitan Police’s drug squad and then as a fraud expert with the National Crime Squad, equivalent to the FBI. For the latter, he worked on the British end of the famous Bank of New York money-laundering scandal in the late 1990s.
In 2005 he joined Wachovia Bank as a money laundering reporting officer. Woods filed his first serious alerts during the 2006 Lebanon war, following up reports that Wachovia accounts were being used by Hezbollah. To his surprise, he was reprimanded for his attempts to freeze the suspect accounts. Later that year, he identified "a number of suspicious transactions" relating to Mexican casas de cambio (currency exchanges). There were deposits of traveler’s checks with sequential numbers for large amounts of money—more than any innocent person would need—with inadequate or no identity information on them, and what seemed to a trained eye to be dubious signatures.
Woods issued a series of "suspicious activity reports" (SARs) urging the blockage of named parties and large series of sequentially numbered traveler’s checks from Mexico. To his amazement, one senior US manager in the Miami office, at which Latin American business was centered, called the reports "defensive and undeserved." Woods, as he puts it, "came under pressure from the business to change to develop a better understanding of Mexico." He was told to stop asking questions and to cease blocking suspicious transactions. "I said, ‘I don’t need to read up on Mexico. My interests are drug trafficking and money laundering.’"
As it turns out, his instincts were exactly right. On April 10, 2006, soldiers from the Mexican military found 128 cases packed with 5.7 tons of cocaine, valued at $100 million, aboard a jet that had just arrived in the port city of Ciudad del Carmen. A twenty-two-month investigation by agents from the DEA, the IRS and others further revealed that the smugglers had bought the plane with money they had laundered through Wachovia. Between 2004 and 2007, the investigation found, billions of dollars in wire transfers, traveler’s checks and bulk cash shipments had been funneled through Mexican exchanges into Wachovia accounts.