Drug trafficking, dirty money and why nobody goes to jail

Zero Zero Zero is a remarkable book for many reasons. Chief of which is that it displays the skin, nay the soul, in the game of the author, Roberto Saviano.

“Skin in the game” is an ethical concept Nassim Taleb derived from antiquity. The basic idea is concerned with symmetry. This means that if you have access to the upside, to the benefits, you must also be equally exposed to the downside, to harm. The example Taleb uses when he explains this idea is that in antiquity Roman engineers, after having built a bridge, had to sit under it with their families. If the bridge held, the engineer kept the material and reputational benefits. And if it didn’t? They were personally harmed. A more modern example would be that of bankers. In an ideal world, a banker should only receive bonuses if he, not the taxpayer, also has to foot the bill if (when) the bank collapses. 

Roman engineers had skin in the game. Bankers—who get multi-million pound bonuses in times of plenty, and get bailed out by governments during crises—do not.

Roberto Saviano? He has skin in the game. Since the release (and success) of his first book, Gommorah, almost a decade ago, he has been under police protection twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He cannot go outside, alone. He cannot stay in the same location for more than a few days. He cannot live anything close to a normal life. The man has symmetry; the success of his work comes at a significant cost.

His second book, Zero Zero Zero, is of a similar nature to his first. Gomorrah exposed the nature and network of organised crime in Naples and southern Italy. Zero Zero Zero explores the workings and the impact of the cocaine economy. The white oil trade, according to Saviano, generates sums that are equivalent to the money generated by the production and retail of oil. That is, the cocaine trade, globally, is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. 

To really drive home the point about the colossal amounts of money we’re talking about here, consider this passage from a chapter entitled, “The Weight of Money”:

“There are two kinds of wealthy people: those who count their money and those who weigh it. If you don’t belong to the latter category, you don’t really know what power is. I learned that from the narco-traffickers.”

It’s one thing to make a few thousand dollars of illicitly generated cash disappear. But a couple hundred billion? That’s a whole other issue. You can’t stash that much cash under a mattress. You can’t just walk into your local bank, open an account and deposit it. To hide it and put it to use, you need to buy expensive things—cars, property, businesses, ships, planes, submarines, weapons, people. But you can’t buy those things with cash, as you run into the same problem; somehow, somewhere, someway, the dirty money has to be cleansed of it’s drug reek. Cash, to be truly liquid, needs to be converted to electronic currency. And the only way such enormous amounts of illegal tender can be converted and used is with the complicity of banks. 

Saviano shows us that, not only are major banking institutions involved in laundering the colossal funds generated from drug trafficking, they profit immensely from it.

Excerpt one:

“From that moment on Wachovia [Bank] is clean, everything’s okay. They had to pay the government a $110 million forfeiture for accepting transactions linked to drug trafficking, and thus violating anti-money-laundering norms, plus a $50 million dollar fine. An enormous sum but ridiculous compared to the earnings of a bank like Wachovia, which in 2009 were about $12.3 billion. Money laundering pays. Not one bank employee or director had to see the inside of a jail cell, even for a single day. No one is guilty; no one is responsible. Merely a scandal, which quickly sinks into oblivion.”

Excerpt two:

“A recent study by Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejia, two economists at the University of Bogota, revealed that 97.4 percent of the revenue from narco-trafficking in Colombia is regularly laundered through banking circuits in the United States and Europe by means of a complex series of financial operations. Hundreds of billions of dollars. The laundering occurs through a shareholding system, like Chinese nesting boxes, in which cash is transformed into electronic stocks and transferred from one country to another. When it arrives on another continent the money’s practically clean and—best of all—untraceable.”

Excerpt three:

“The Senate subcommittee’s investigation revealed that HBUS [the American branch of HSBC] had offered correspondent banking services to HSBC Mexico, treating it as a low-risk client despite its being in a country with huge money-laundering and drug-trafficking problems. Between 2007 and 2008 the Mexican branch $7 billion in cash to HBUS, exceeding all other Mexican banks and sparking suspicions that part of this money might be from drug sales in the United States. At the end of 2012, HBUS declared that it was very sorry for what had happened and agreed to pay a fine of almost $2 billion—less than a third of what they’d taken in from Mexico alone.”

One of the things that Saviano highlights is that nobody is really held responsible for the sanitising of dirty money. In fact, far from being held responsible and punished for such morally and ethically bankrupt conduct, individuals actually profit from it. From Ed Vulliamy, in the foreword:

“Paul Thurston, the man in charge of HSBC Mexico for some of the relevant period, was promoted to become head of global retail on a multimillion-dollar salary. Stephen Green, the chief executive of the bank throughout its service to El Chapo Guzman’s cartel, was appointed to the British government as a minister for trade.”

For the high level executives involved in such affairs drug scandals aren’t crises; they’re springboards used to vault into adjacent or higher positions within the same realm.

Learning about all this brought—along with a sense of disgust—a fairly naive question to my mind: why does nobody go to jail? Yes, I understand that there is a great chasm between perceiving the illegal and unethical and proving it via the skewed justice systems of the world. But nevertheless. Why is it that nobody goes to jail?

I’ve been thinking about this and I have a tentative answer: it’s practically impossible to convict someone who is wealthy, well connected, and who has plausible deniability.


Some lawyers work in the justice system for the right reasons. They see wrongs and want to help right them. They want to protect the innocent from the tendrils of the powerful. These lawyers work for love and ideals. Other lawyers work for money and prestige and power. Both types of lawyers can be very, very good at what they do. But the best law firms for the banks, the ones that are willing to look past morals and ethics and are excellent at what they do, are expensive. But that doesn’t matter. Banking institutions can afford to maintain an army of such expensive, sly, competent lawyers.

So that’s one reason why being wealthy makes you hard to convict. If you have a lot of money, or are being backed by an organisation that does, you can put up a very good fight in the courtroom. 

The second reason. If you don’t have money, the justice system has to be seen to punish you in another way. If they can’t take your money, they have to take something else. So they resort to removing or restricting your freedom. They put you in jail. Under house arrest. Whatever. But if you have money, while those things are still an option, they’re way less attractive. It’s easier, and often seen as a harsher punishment, to fine someone $1 billion than it is to put them behind bars for a year.

The heuristic is this: the more money you have, or have access to, the less likely it is you are going to end up behind bars. Money can delay and obscure proceedings indefinitely. And money can be given up in lieu of personal freedom.

Yes, the justice system can converse in the illiquid currency of freedom, but it prefers to be compensated with the liquidity of cash.


Imagine that, not only are you wealthy, but you, or the organisation you represent, are responsible for providing services and contracts and kickbacks to those who are trying to convict you. If you are wealthy, work in the upper echelons of the private sector, and have a lot of pals high up in certain, helpful areas of government, what are the chances of your being put in a cell? Slim. 

Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s far harder to convict a corporation than it is to convict an individual. A corporation can act in ways a human would be too ashamed to. A corporation can be used as a cloak to justify vice. It is not bound by the ethics of virtue—of honour, of justice, of fairness. A corporation is beholden to a single objective: profit. So the well connected can take shelter behind institutions and corporations. By claiming to act on behalf of these entities, they enlist their power. 

As individuals, they are vulnerable. But as a representative of something big and extensive, they are powerful. And they are powerful because they do not stand alone.


Wealth and affiliation are a potent defense against the legal system. But the combination of these two things creates a third, practically unscalable wall between a deed and it’s consequences: layers. 

The higher up an executive branch you climb, the more distance, the more layers there are, between decision and action. High level people decide, they don’t do. They make the decision, someone else executes it. 

It is this separation between decision and deed which makes the people responsible for laundering dirty money so untouchable. It’s easy to convict someone for being on the streets pushing drugs. You can catch them with the money or the substance in their hands. It’s a lot harder to convict someone because they made a decision.

I’m not ignorant enough to think that my exploration of this issue will have a significant impact. But I do believe that an action, however small, can precipitate, or reinforce something bigger. And that is my hope. If I can help one person see what I have seen, discover what I learned via Roberto Saviano, then this piece will have accomplished it’s end. 

And what have I learnt is this: no one goes to jail for laundering drug money because the people responsible are wealthy, well connected, and put layers between decision and action. 

Now, I’m unsure what we can actually do about this. But I do think that there are only three ways we’ll ever overturn this reality. 

The first is to refuse to accept money as a form of compensation for any wrongdoing. A murderer cannot make bail for any amount. No matter his resources, he has to stay behind bars. So why aren’t bank executives seen as murderers? They are murderers-by-abstraction. Their decisions and irresponsibility cost people their lives, yet they walk free amongst us.

The second is to assign individual responsibility instead of corporate blame. A corporation exists only on paper. In reality, it is composed of a loose chain of actual human beings. So prosecute people, not the stacks of paper and letterheads which represent a company. 

The final way is to hold decision makers just as responsible as action takers. In the armed forces, if an officer orders a manoeuvre that is unethical and kills civilians, he is court-martialled, and so are his soldiers. The person holding the gun is punished, as is the person ordering him to pull the trigger. Why not the same in our justice systems?