One of the biggest money laundering investigations ever undertaken by the U.S. Justice Department was Operation Polar Cap, which netted $1.2 billion and resulted in the arrests of 127 people in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The operation targeted funds being laundered by the Medellin drug cartel, which called its scheme “La Mina,” or “the Gold Mine.” The cartel’s money launderers set up a bogus scrap gold business in New York, and filed fake gold certificates to cover shipments flown nightly from New York City jewelers to bullion dealers in Los Angeles.
But no gold was being shipped. Instead, the cartel was sending boxes of cash. The Justice Department was tipped off to the scheme when a Los Angeles bank reported that an account set up by a jeweler reached $25 million in less than three months. Another bank reported an account set up by a grocer was showing similar growth over a short period of time.
The ultimate failure of the scheme came with corner cutting in the layering stage: while the launderers did a good job of moving money around the world, the amount of gold certificates issued too closely matched the amounts and dates of deposits being made by the jeweler, grocer, and other business owners recruited as fronts to help layer the money.