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#Encrochat News : Italian drugs cartels conceal payments via Chinese shadow banks

Drugs cartels operating in Italy are increasingly using shadow networks of unlicensed Chinese money brokers to conceal cross-border payments, according to Italian judicial and law enforcement authorities.

The development highlights how an issue that U.S. authorities have been battling in connection to Latin American narcotics groups has taken root in Europe.

In Italy, authorities are seeing an increased use of the money transfer networks, which operate without an easily traceable trail and facilitate rapid payments, seven judicial and law enforcement officials told Reuters.

The transfer method involves depositing a sum with a money broker in one country while another agent in the network elsewhere in the world pays the equivalent amount to the intended recipient.

"The phenomenon is on the rise," said Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor, Barbara Sargenti, who coordinates investigations both domestically and abroad. In an interview at her office in Rome, Sargenti said the growing number of related investigations was due both to an increase in activity and an improved ability by authorities to detect such cases.

She added that because money is transferred outside of the banking system it makes it very difficult for authorities to identify and trace. "This kind of financial intermediation undermines the entire international anti-money laundering system,” which is based on the control and analysis of banking transactions, she said. Such measures are a key weapon in the fight against criminal gangs.

Italian authorities have announced at least six investigations involving drug gangs and the Chinese payment networks since the issue first publicly came to light about five years ago. Those probes involve alleged payments to narcotics suppliers in Latin America, Morocco and Spain, according to authorities and judicial documents reviewed by Reuters.

U.S. authorities have said Chinese “money brokers” represent one of the most worrisome new threats in their war on drugs, as a Reuters investigation in 2020 found.

Earlier this year, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Anne Milgram highlighted the issue during a Senate committee hearing, saying Mexican drug cartels were using Chinese money laundering organisations “around the world to facilitate laundering drug proceeds.”

It has become an issue for law enforcement in Europe, too. Europol, the European Union’s police agency, told Reuters that Chinese criminal networks are “more and more engaged in the laundering of criminal proceeds in Europe,” including from drug trafficking.

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