Tracking Down Money Stolen By Arab Dictators

Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are all forming new governments. That's after Arab Spring revolutions toppled the dictators who ruled there for decades. Among the challenges these governments face is recovering the money their predecessors looted from the national treasuries. It won't be easy.

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Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are all forming new governments, that's after Arab Spring revolutions toppled the dictators who ruled there for decades. Among the challenges these governments face is recovering the money their predecessors looted from the national treasuries, and that won't be easy.

NPR's Susannah George spoke with some of the people who are trying to track that money down.

SUSANNAH GEORGE, BYLINE: The estimates of how much money was stolen are staggering. Between Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, the figure is in the billions. Jeffrey Robinson has been writing about money laundering since the '80s.

JEFFREY ROBINSON: The very first lesson in dictator school is that cash is king. Now, you need cash because the generals who support you in your country and the corrupt politicians whom you put in place to do your bidding and the mercenaries you hire to protect you don't accept Visa, and they don't take checks. So you need to have a lot of cash.

GEORGE: Robinson says that dictators, like drug dealers, amass wealth as a kind of insurance policy. Money is protection.

ROBINSON: What you need to do is plan for the future, and so you take out an insurance policy which is called some place to go when they overthrow you. And you feather that nest with gold, with investments that you can call on, and at some point also with secret bank accounts, where you can use it to invest and create an income for yourself.

GEORGE: Thousands of miles away from North Africa, in a Washington, D.C. office, Robert Palmer is working to try and find that money. He works for the international watchdog group Global Witness. He says the process is difficult, painful and slow.

ROBERT PALMER: Countries that have had assets stolen by corrupt politicians find it very difficult to get information out of other countries. And that's not just the tax havens we're talking about. Some of the kind of major developed countries can be very slow at helping countries whose politicians have stolen money.

GEORGE: And do they ever get it back?

PALMER: Sometimes.

GEORGE: But he acknowledges the recovery rate is low, very low.

PALMER: Five.

GEORGE: Five percent?

PALMER: Five percent is a high estimate.

GEORGE: The U.N. estimates that of all the money laundered around the world - a number they say is in the neighborhood of $1.6 trillion - only 1 percent is recovered. And it's not just corrupt dictators' fortunes that make up that 1.6 trillion.

PALMER: All money launderers use the same systems and methods, whether you're a drug dealer, a corrupt politician, a terrorist, someone trying to get money for nuclear proliferation. It's not just about dry numbers and dry laws and obligations and regulations. This is about allowing people to systematically loot their country.

GEORGE: Once money makes its way into the international banking system, it's as good as gone. Jeffrey Robinson says it's almost impossible to know where the money ends up. Gadhafi's money could be anywhere from Venezuela to Zimbabwe.

ROBINSON: The problem is that you need to follow money trails. And if they've done it properly, there is no money trail. Mr. Chavez, I'm sure, is sitting on a lot of Mr. Gadhafi's money and has no intention of returning it. Mr. Mugabe in Zimbabwe is sitting on a lot of Mr. Gadhafi's money.

GEORGE: And Robert Palmer agrees.

PALMER: I suspect there's a lot of money in places such as Dubai, Singapore and, you know, reportedly, he had gold bars buried in the desert somewhere, so who knows?

GEORGE: Susannah George, NPR News, Washington.

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