Latin America & Caribbean

Why fake dollars are big business in Peru

Checking a dollar bill
Image caption US authorities estimate that 17% of all fake bills in the US originated in Peru

When Joel Quispe Rodriguez was arrested last year at a bar in north-western Peru, many Peruvians thought his capture marked the beginning of the end of a multi-million-dollar illegal trade in counterfeit money.

He was thrown behind bars, and accused of running a criminal network of close family members who had been trafficking huge amounts of forged currency abroad since 2009.

Yet, twice this year, on 17 July and 1 August, the Quispe Rodriguez clan, as the police refer to them, made the news again.

After an operation lasting several months, police said they had detained two further family members and seized counterfeit bills totalling nearly $7m (£4.5m), including euros and Peruvian soles.

"We have dealt a hard blow to organised crime," police chief Raul Salazar told journalists, as he stood next to a long table covered with layers of freshly-printed uncut sheets of fake $50 bills.

Cesar Cortijo, the director of the crime investigation unit within the Peruvian police, says most of that money was intended to be transported abroad, in ways similar to those used by drug-traffickers.

Image caption Counterfeiters resort to various methods to hide their fake money

"We have found notebooks with Peruvian traditional drawings on the cover, to make them look like souvenirs," he told the BBC.

"They have a compartment to hide the dollars, which are all wrapped in carbon paper so that the contents are invisible to X-rays."

According to the police, more than $17m in fake money has been seized so far this year, mostly bound for the US and countries that use the dollar as currency, such as Ecuador.

The US authorities believe that Peru is the major foreign producer of fake dollar bills circulating in the US.

"In 2003, we detected the first note that was manufactured in Peru," says Brian Leary, a spokesman for the US Secret Services.

"It's been increasing, and right now 17% of all counterfeit dollars in the US are of Peruvian origin."

Big losses

The overall amount of fake dollars that makes it out of Peru is unknown.

But the Central Reserve Bank of Peru believes that the forged currency in circulation does not pose a macro-economic threat.

"This is organised crime that mostly affects low-income people," says bank official Juan Antonio Ramirez.

Image caption Fake euros have also been seized by the Peruvian police

"For them, accepting a forged note can mean losing a lot of money.

"That's why we tell the public to be careful and know very well what security features to look for in banknotes," he says.

Mr Ramirez thinks that around 0.5% of all bills in Peru, including dollars, are fake.

Peruvians are learning to live with the problem, and know to be suspicious when dealing with high-denomination banknotes.

Shops and hotels use ultraviolet lights and special pens to search for signs that could identify fakes, and taxi drivers go as far as forcibly snapping suspicious bills in the air to test for quality.

Peru has a large informal economy, where fake identity cards and other documents can be bought on the black market.

It also has smuggling routes for drugs, goods and people already in place, which could be exploited by forgers.

But whether these factors contribute to the high level of counterfeiting in Peru is hard to say for certain.

Small fry

The Peruvian government recognises there is a problem, which it says is being tackled as a priority in its fight against organised crime.

Forgers face up to 12 years in jail, and officials say border security is continually being improved to try to detect fake currency.

But Jorge Gonzalez, a Peruvian economist who specialises in monetary policy, believes the authorities should do more to arrest criminal gang leaders, in Peru and abroad.

Image caption Forgers are always trying to be one step ahead of the police

"They mostly catch the small fish, not those at the top.

"They catch the courier who's taking the money through the airport, but not the person who's sending it," he says.

Multi-national co-operation and shared intelligence may, however, be having some effect.

The US Secret Service estimates that this year the number of fake dollars from Peru will be down by 4%.

The Andean country has been working more closely with the US authorities since 2009, and its Central Bank also exchanges information with Interpol and with Spain, which uses the euro.

But Prof Gonzalez, who has twice served as a government minister, believes that as long as it remains profitable, counterfeiting will not disappear.

According to his calculations, for every 10 fake dollars smuggled out of Peru, a trafficker could be receiving one real dollar in compensation.

"So if you give me millions to take out of the country, you can imagine how much money I could be making," he says.

With such high profit margins, he points out, forgers could move their money-making productions somewhere else if the police in Peru gain the upper hand.

Or if their dollar markets are squeezed here, they could switch to printing more fake euros and other currencies instead, Prof Gonzalez believes.

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