Corruption and Trade Misinvoicing: A Closer Look at Colombia

Trade misinvoicing—the misrepresentation of the price, quantity, origin, or quality of traded goods—is a serious problem. Misinvoicing deprives the government of revenue by enabling importers and exporters to evade taxes and duties, or to claim undeserved tax incentives. Consider the case of Colombia: According to estimates, in 2016 the country lost approximately US$2.8 billion in revenue due to trade misinvoicing (equivalent to roughly 5.2% of total Colombian tax revenues collected that year)—revenues that could have paid for Colombia’s 2018-2022 National Development Plan more than eight times over. Trade misinvoicing also plays a key role in so-called trade-based money laundering (TBML), as the under- or over-statement of value of traded goods is one way to move value across borders and disguise the origin of illicit wealth. This form of money laundering is especially attractive to criminals, in part because roughly 80% of global trade transactions do not involve bank financing and as a result are not subject to the anti-money laundering (AML) controls that apply to the financial sector. Myriad TBML cases can be found in countries where corruption is systemic and impunity reigns (see here, here, and here).

Corruption of customs officials is the lubricant that makes trade misinvoicing possible. As one illustrative example of the extent and impact of such corruption, consider the case of Humberto Angulo Montero, the former head of the Cartagena Office of Colombia’s National Directorate of Taxes and Customs (Dirección de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales, or DIAN). In 2015, following a nine-year investigation, Angulo was arrested for taking kickbacks from smuggling networks importing alcohol, cigarettes, textiles, and shoes. The investigation revealed that Angulo facilitated the under-reporting of goods by up to 50%, allowing the importers to make colossal profits. In return, the importers gave Angulo a share of those profits—a hefty enough share that his personal wealth increased an astounding 580% between 2003 and 2009. Angulo’s case may be extreme, but it is hardly unique.

Governments in countries like Colombia can and should do more to prevent this sort of corruption. While Colombia took an important step forward in 2015 by passing its Customs Law No. 1762, there is still much room for improvement. Here are four recommendations for making progress on this issue, which are tailored to Colombia but that may apply more broadly:

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The Global Community Must Take Further Steps to Combat Trade-Based Money Laundering

Global trade has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and with this growth has come the increased risk of trade-based money laundering. Criminals often use the legitimate flow of goods across borders—and the accompanying movement of funds—to relocate value from one jurisdiction to another without attracting the attention of law enforcement. As an example, imagine a criminal organization that wants to move dirty money from China to Canada, while disguising the illicit origins of that money. The organization colludes with (or sets up) an exporter in Canada and an importer in China. The exporter then contracts to ship $2 million worth of goods to China and bills the importer for the full $2 million, but, crucially, only ships goods worth $1 million. Once the bill is paid, $1 million has been transferred across borders and a paper trail makes the money seem legitimate. The process works in reverse as well: the Canadian exporter might ship $1 million worth of goods to the Chinese importer but only bill the importer $500,000. When those goods are sold on the open market, the additional $500,000 is deposited in an account in China for the benefit of the criminal organization. Besides these classic over- and under-invoicing techniques, there are other forms of trade-based money laundering, including invoicing the same shipment multiple times, shipping goods other than those invoiced, simply shipping nothing at all while issuing a fake invoice, or even more complicated schemes (see here and here for examples).

As governments have cracked down on traditional money-laundering schemes—such as cash smuggling and financial system manipulation—trade-based money laundering has become increasingly common. Indeed, the NGO Global Financial Integrity estimates that trade misinvoicing has become “the primary means for illicitly shifting funds between developing and advanced countries.” Unfortunately, trade-based money laundering is notoriously difficult to detect, in part because of the scale of global trade: it’s easy to hide millions of dollars in global trading flows worth trillions. (Catching trade-based money laundering has been likened to searching for a bad needle in a stack of needles.) Furthermore, the deceptions involved in trade-based money laundering can be quite subtle: shipping paperwork may be consistent with sales contracts and with the actual shipped goods, so the illicit value transfer will remain hidden unless investigators have a good idea of the true market value of the goods. Using hard-to-value goods, such as fashionable clothes or used cars, can make detection nearly impossible. Moreover, sophisticated criminals render these schemes even more slippery by commingling illicit and legitimate business ventures, shipping goods through third countries, routing payments through intermediaries, and taking advantage of lax customs regulations in certain jurisdictions, especially free trade zones (see here and here). In a world where few shipping containers are physically inspected (see here, here, and here), total failure to detect trade-based money laundering is “just a decimal point away.”

The international community can and should be doing more to combat trade-based money laundering, starting with the following steps:

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