Diversity & Inclusion

Case studies in culture

Conducting international investigations abroad requires adaptability and a willingness to learn new customs. The author, who’s conducted many overseas investigations throughout her career, details her experiences to demonstrate why understanding people and their cultures can vastly improve your investigations abroad.

While investigating South American drug traffickers, I had to track their movements as they traveled with their families between South America and the U.S., but the only information I had were the men’s surnames. While this information might seem vital to tracing someone’s flights between continents, having grown up in a Puerto Rican family and in a neighborhood of South American families, I knew that it’s not uncommon for South Americans to use both maternal and paternal surnames, and it was possible they were using their wives’, mothers’ or maternal grandmothers’ last names to travel. At first, my team was skeptical that searching for the women’s names would help, but knowing this information soon paid off. The men and their spouses were indeed traveling under the women’s surnames since it was culturally and legally acceptable for them to do so. Not only were we able to track their travels to and from the U.S., but we were also able to find their “funnel accounts” — bank accounts that receive deposits in multiple locations so that money launderers can circumvent reporting requirements for transactions — because they’d used maternal surnames to open them. (See “Dos Apellidos: When Families Have Two Surnames,” by Nicolás Cabrera, Denver Public Library, Nov. 17, 2020; “Lourdes C. Miranda, CFE,” by Jennifer Liebman, CFE, Fraud Magazine, November/December 2023; and “12 Red Flags for ‘Funnel Accounts’ Used to Launder Money,” by Denise Hutchings, Verafin, Feb. 25, 2015.)

I’ve been conducting international financial fraud investigations for more than 25 years, including when I was a CIA officer and FBI analyst, and while the latest technologies and investigative methods are important to my cases, I’ve found that my knowledge of the human side of the equation — the cultural customs and the language — was essential to closing a case. 

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