In February 2008, Mexican authorities told the CEO of HSBC's Mexico unit that a local drug lord referred to the bank as the "place to launder money," U.S. prosecutors said on Tuesday, as they announced a record $1.92 billion settlement with the British bank.
Lax money laundering controls at HSBC allowed two cartels - one each in Mexico and Colombia - to move $881 million in drug proceeds through the bank over the second half of the last decade, according to prosecutors and federal court documents.
So rampant was the practice, prosecutors said, that on some days drug traffickers deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars at HSBC Mexico accounts. To speed things along, the criminals even designed "specially shaped boxes" that fit the size of teller windows at HSBC branches, according to the documents.
Prosecutors said a multi-year, multi-agency probe into such transactions revealed how HSBC had degenerated into the "preferred financial institution" for drug traffickers and money launderers. And on Tuesday, that culminated in a far-reaching deferred prosecution agreement with HSBC.
An HSBC spokesman declined to discuss specific transactions or clients. But as part of the agreement, the bank acknowledged major lapses in compliance and ignoring red flags. It also acknowledged enabling clients to avoid U.S. sanctions that prohibit dealings with countries such as Iran, Libya, Sudan, Myanmar and Cuba.
The bank agreed to take steps to fix problems, forfeit $1.256 billion, and retain a compliance monitor. It also agreed to pay $665 million in civil penalties to resolve regulatory actions by the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and others.
"We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again. The HSBC of today is a fundamentally different organization from the one that made those mistakes," HSBC Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver said.
The settlement, the largest penalty ever paid by a bank, had been expected.
In November, the bank told investors its penalty could exceed $1.5 billion. And many of the details of the bank's lapses that allowed shadowy money to sluice through HSBC were contained in a U.S. Senate investigative report in July.
(Read more: HSBC Might Pay $1.8 Billion Money Laundering Fine)
HSBC shares closed up 0.6 percent in London on Tuesday, and its Hong Kong-listed shares were up about 0.25 percent by late morning on Wednesday.
Money Laundering And Washing Machines
Top U.S. law-enforcement officials, standing sternly at a news conference in Brooklyn, New York, gave new details on Tuesday of how the bank was used. They pointed to flow charts decorated with green dollar bills showing how cartels used HSBC accounts to move money through Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere.
In one type of money-laundering transaction, the documents show how millions of dollars of drug money flowed through HSBC as Colombian drug cartels used the so-called Black Market Peso Exchange to convert U.S. dollars to Colombian pesos.
In a multi-step laundering process, middlemen - referred to as peso brokers - used U.S. dollars from drug cartels to buy consumer goods such as washing machines and then exported them to Colombia, where they were sold, according to the documents and a source familiar with the situation. Part of the sale proceeds, now in Colombian pesos, was then given back to the drug cartels, the documents show.
Other transactions involved Mexican drug cartels, prosecutors said.
After the February 2008 meeting with Mexican authorities, HSBC conducted an internal inquiry that found a small number of Mexican clients accounted for a large percentage of the U.S. dollars moving through HSBC, according to the documents, which include a "statement of facts" that HSBC has agreed to.
A significant sum ultimately was traced to the city of Culiacan in the rugged Mexican state of Sinaloa, home to one of Mexico's powerful drug gangs that is directed by the country's most-wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, the documents show. In 2001, Guzman escaped from a maximum security prison in a laundry cart.
HSBC closed the suspected accounts, but the bank kept accepting dollar deposits in Sinaloa. Between 2006 and 2008, HSBC's Mexican unit moved $1.1 billion from Sinaloa to the bank's U.S. branches, according to the documents.
Drug cartels earn an estimated $60 billion a year from trafficking in the United States, according to the United Nations. Half of that money is routed back to Mexico to pay off politicians, fund private arsenals and fuel violence that killed more than 60,000 people over the past six years.
Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, said that compliance at HSBC was "woefully inadequate."
HSBC's compliance employees were vastly outnumbered, according to prosecutors. Less than a handful of bank employees, for example, were charged with reviewing 13,000 to 15,000 suspicious alerts generated monthly, they said.
Prosecutors agreed to a deferred prosecution deal, which means that HSBC avoids being criminally charged. They also decided against charging any individuals.
Lanny Breuer, chief of the Justice Department's criminal division, defended the move, saying, "HSBC is paying a heavy price for its conduct."
Later, he said that while HSBC permitted itself to be an essential element in money laundering, it was not the mastermind. "They are not the Sinaloa cartel," he said.
HSBC said it had increased spending on anti-money laundering systems by about nine times between 2009 and 2011, exited business relationships and clawed back bonuses for senior executives. As evidence of its determination to change, it cited the hiring last January of Stuart Levey, a former top U.S. Treasury Department official, as chief legal officer.
Under the five-year agreement with the Justice Department, HSBC has agreed to have an independent monitor evaluate its progress in improving its compliance.
It also said that as part of the overhaul of its controls, it has launched a global review of its "Know Your Customer" files, which will cost an estimated $700 million over five years. The files are designed to ensure that banks do not unwittingly act as conduits for criminal funds.
There is already some evidence that the crackdown on HSBC has slowed the flow of illegal cash.
In 2009, HSBC began exiting a business that moves bulk cash through the global financial system and a year later, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency ordered the bank to improve its compliance.
Since then, the repatriation of U.S. dollars from Mexico has fallen to less than $5 billion in 2011 compared with $12 billion in 2008, according to Donald Semesky, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official who provided the data last month at an anti-money laundering conference in Washington.
(Slideshow: The World's Safest Banks 2012)