Was Brinks-Mat the start of large-scale professional money laundering?

‘The Gold’ glamourises money laundering – and those involved in it - but the UK still bears the scars of one of the world’s biggest ever heists

Millions of us have been glued to The Gold, the BBC’s star-studded dramatisation of the infamous Brink’s-Mat gold robbery.

The TV show tells the story of how six raiders broke into the Brink’s-Mat warehouse at Heathrow in 1983, expecting to steal Spanish currency worth around £13,000 but instead stumbled upon gold bars worth £26million (around £100m in today’s money).

To hide the original theft, the robbers called upon gold-smelter Joh Palmer to melt down the gold and mix it with copper and other metal to disguise it; it was then sold back to legitimate dealers – some was even sold back to its original owner. The proceeds are believed to have been used to finance a wide range of illegitimate – and legitimate – activities including the UK property developments and Britain’s cocaine market.

The heist was the biggest in UK history and due to the sheer scale of the theft and the value of the gold stolen, the way in which those involved ‘disposed’ of the gold is believed to have been how large-scale, professional money laundering began.

Speaking in the BBC’s companion documentary about the robbery - The Gold: The Inside Story, former Detective Sergeant Roy Ram, who was involved in the hunt for the missing gold, said:

“This was money laundering on a different scale, involving lawyers, bankers and accountants who could all see the immense amount of wealth that could be generated from criminal funds. It became international.”

In The Gold, the character Edwyn Cooper (based on Michael Relton, a solicitor who was convicted of helping launder the proceeds from the robbery) sets up offshore accounts to launder the profits from the Brink’s-Mat theft. This laundered money was then brought back into the UK – clean – and invested in UK property, most notably, it is believed, to fund the development of the London Docklands in the late ‘80s and early 90s.

Martin Cheek, managing director at anti-money laundering firm SmartSearch said: “Brinks-mat was effectively the start of large-scale international money laundering. The scale of the operation was so huge, that it needed a completely new approach.  Before Brink’s-Mat, money laundering had never been so ‘professional’ – the number of people involved in cleaning this dirty cash meant it was travelling all around the world, being hidden in off-shore accounts in Switzerland, Panama, anywhere with ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policies.

“Barclays Bank in Bedminster, Bristol, near smelter John Palmer’s gold-dealer shop, deposited anything up to £400,000 a day – in total around £13 m went through the branch - but instead of reporting it, they just brought in more £50 notes to cope with demand.  Back then, there were no laws in place requiring them to raise alarm bells, so no questions were asked.

“We now have laws in place to stop this level of money laundering from happening. Regulated firms – lawyers, property firms and estate agents, banks and other financial institutions – are legally obliged to run checks on everyone they do business with and report anything that seems suspicious, including money moving around with no explanation.

“And while it seems crazy to us, watching The Gold, that the money launderers involved in the Brinks-Mat theft were able to get away with what appears to be such blatant money laundering, if lawyers, banks and property developers do not take their obligations seriously, dirty money will continue to flow through the UK’s economy.

“In The Gold, the criminals involved are glamourised, but the impacts of what they did can still be felt. Their actions basically created money laundering as we know it today, which is not only a crime in itself, but an enabler of much more serious crimes, like drug trafficking and people trafficking.

“In The Gold, much of the money was cleaned through offshore accounts in the names of anonymous companies, and this remains one of the most common money laundering techniques because it is so easy to hide the origins of the funds – and who owns them.

“At SmartSearch, not only are we able to run comprehensive anti-money laundering checks on individuals and companies, but our advanced technology can identify the ultimate beneficial owners of offshore accounts and shell companies, so that your clients always know exactly who they are doing business with, giving them the peace of mind that they’d never become enablers for criminals like those involved in Brinks-Mat.”

To find out more about how SmartSearch can help your business meet its compliance and AML requirements now and in the future, speak to an AML expert today.

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