How a Chinese American Gangster Transformed Money Laundering for Drug Cartels
Xizhi Li pioneered a new method that enriched Latin American drug lords and China's elite. A DEA investigation found the Chinese government may have been involved.
In 2017, Drug Enforcement Administration agents following the money from cocaine deals in Memphis, Tennessee, identified a mysterious figure in Mexico entrusted by drug lords with their millions: a Chinese American gangster named Xizhi Li.
As the agents tracked Li's activity across the Americas and Asia, they realized he wasn't just another money launderer. He was a pioneer. Operating with the acumen of a financier and the tradecraft of a spy, he had helped devise an innovative system that revolutionized the drug underworld and fortified the cartels.
Li hit on a better way to address a problem that has long bedeviled the world's drug lords: how to turn the mountains of grimy twenties and hundreds amassed on U.S. streets into legitimate fortunes they can spend on yachts, mansions, weapons, technology and bribes to police and politicians.
For years, the Mexican cartels that supply the U.S. market with cocaine, heroin and fentanyl smuggled truckloads of bulk cash to Mexico, where they used banks and exchange houses to move the money into the financial system. And they also hired middlemen — often Colombian or Lebanese specialists who charged as much as 18 cents on the dollar — to launder their billions.
Those methods were costly, took weeks or even months to complete and exposed the stockpiled cash to risks — damage, robbery, confiscation.
Enter Li. About six years ago, federal antidrug agents in Chicago saw early signs of what would become a tectonic change. They trailed cartel operatives transporting drug cash to a new destination:
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Page Updated Last on: Oct 29, 2022