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Western Union settlement a turning point in smuggling war

Our $94 million settlement with Western Union ranks as one of the most important legal agreements in Arizona’s history.

It will provide needed resources to investigate and prosecute crimes along the U.S.-Mexico border. It will enable law enforcement to more effectively stem the flow of illicit money transfers that help finance the international drug cartels based in Mexico. And it brings together the four Southwest border states – Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas – in a new partnership to make the entire border more secure.

The drug cartels have become substantially more bold and dangerous in recent years. They have killed more than 15,000 people in pursuit of their criminal activities, which include the smuggling of drugs, human beings, guns and money. The cartels’ violence respects no boundaries, and the danger they pose to public safety in our state is significant.

Arizona has become the primary gateway for drug and human smuggling into the United States.
The common denominator in all of these criminal enterprises is money.

If we diminish their flow of money, we can diminish their criminal potential. That’s why my office has worked hard to follow the money, intercept the money, and whenever possible, cut if off.
Many of the cartels’ smuggling operations have been paid for using money wires through companies like Western Union, which is by far the nation’s largest provider of money transfers. While most wire transfers are perfectly legal, some company agents have been bought off by the cartels and have used legitimate operations to facilitate smuggling.

My office has been investigating and prosecuting illegal money transfers during all of my seven years as attorney general. I have brought many cases in Arizona courts seeking to stop these criminal transactions.

Some of our legal actions have been successful; others have not. But I continued to aggressively pursue these cases because I am convinced that one of the most effective ways to dismantle the cartels is to interrupt the Western Union wire transactions that are a vital part of their highly profitable smuggling activities.

The $94 million settlement represents a remarkable victory in our ongoing war against the cartels. As a result of this agreement, Western Union will pay $21 million to help Arizona agencies recoup their law enforcement costs associated with border crime investigations and prosecutions and finance their ongoing costs. It will also make $50 million available to state and local law enforcement along the entire length of the U.S.- Mexico border to investigate and prosecute crimes.

The company will commit an additional $23 million to an aggressive new internal enforcement plan to ensure that wire transfers do not facilitate criminal activity. Included in this sum is $4 million for a court-appointed monitor to assure us that Western Union does what it has promised.

There’s more. In addition to the new money available under this settlement, Western Union has promised to provide law enforcement with unprecedented access to records of its money transactions. With appropriate safeguards, this data will be available to state, local and county law enforcement authorities in all four border states so that suspicious activity can be investigated as quickly as possible.

Access to this data represents a turning point in our war against the cartels and should lead to more arrests and disruptions of the cartels’ activities.

Work on this case has been the product of an important collaboration between the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, the Phoenix Police Department and the Department of Financial Institutions. Today’s settlement demonstrates what law enforcement can do when we share information and work together in the fight against organized crime.

I would also like to pay tribute to the bipartisan cooperation of my fellow attorneys general – Jerry Brown in California, Gary King in New Mexico and Greg Abbot in Texas – who came together to help structure the plan for border law enforcement grants. This will be key to the long-term success of this settlement and hopefully a death knell for the use of wire transfers for criminal purposes.

Let me be clear: Our war against these violent cartels is not over.

They are a formidable foe and have shown a frightening ability to adapt and move on.

It is a fight that we can and must win.

- Terry Goddard is the Arizona attorney general. He is also a Democrat who is running for governor.

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