The Case Against High-Denomination Bank Notes

Although the use of cash continues to decline in both the legitimate and illicit economies, lots of criminal transactions, including bribe payments, still use cash—slipped into pockets or envelopes, or carried in briefcases and suitcases. The anonymity, untraceability, and universal acceptance of cash make it useful for many types of criminal activity, including not only corruption, but also drug trafficking, human trafficking, and terrorism. Cash is also indispensable to money laundering, because it both obscures the source of funds and enables money to flow undetected across borders. (As a Europol report observed, “[a]lthough not all use of cash is criminal, all criminals use cash at some stage in the money-laundering process.”) Indeed, as governments and banks increasingly scrutinize electronic transactions, parts of the illicit economy will embrace cash all the more.

Nobody seriously argues for eliminating cash entirely. But there is a simple step that monetary authorities can and should take to make cash-based criminal transactions substantially harder, without substantially impinging on the legitimate cash-based economy: eliminate high-denomination notes.

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Mandatory Prison Corruption Report Looks for a Cure in Brazil

In a recent provisional measure (currently only in Spanish), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Brazilian government to take a variety of steps to address human rights violations at the notorious Curado prison complex. Such violations are pervasive: Shockingly, the Curado guards, in exchange for kickbacks or other illicit benefits, essentially handed over control of the prison (and other prisoners) to certain inmates (often the most violent or feared), turned a blind eye to or participated in the complex’s massive drugs and weapons trade, and repeatedly failed to stop prison breaks and riots.

Notably, among the steps in the Court’s order is a demand that the government investigate and report back to the Court on corruption, particularly on weapons and drugs trafficking, among officials at the prison. The Court—like its companion institution, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which investigates and reports to the Court—is not directly tasked with addressing corruption. However, its mandate includes protecting the right to humane treatment. At Curado, the prison guards, as agents of Brazil, affirmatively jeopardized the safety of prisoners with their corruption, and the Brazilian government failed to protect prisoners from abuses stemming from those actions. The Court’s measure, drawing from the Commission’s recommendations, emphasizes that the widespread corruption of the guards and other prison officials was one of the factors that allowed the inhumane conditions in the prison to continue.

The Court’s ruling seems to be one of the first times an international judicial body has ordered a country to undertake a review of corruption within its borders and then be held directly accountable to that international body. Thus, beyond its immediate significance to the Curado situation, the Court’s decision is a milestone in more directly recognizing and addressing corruption as a proximate cause of human rights violations. While this recognition will not by itself resolve the dire situation at Curado, it is an important step forward, and is notable for several reasons:

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