Forward by Howard Marks
Many of us have travelled through customs or airport security carrying something we should not. Possibilities include a scintilla of the finest squidgy Afghan hash, an extra bottle of duty-free booze, or a few thousand dollars that did not seem worth mentioning to the authorities. We know it can be a nerve-wrenching experience that precipitates sweaty palms, a pounding heart, and the persistent fear that the little old lady in the corner is actually an undercover drug squad officer, and we are aware it does not usually facilitate a relaxed journey. Imagine doing that day-in day-out for two decades. That is precisely what master money launderer Bruce Aitken did in the 1970s and 1980s. I can well understand why he turned to God in later life.
I never fully understood the terms “smuggling” or “money laundering” or why they became crimes. When I was “smuggling” or Bruce was “money laundering” all it meant was that we were moving beneficial herbs, in my case, or official banknotes in Bruce’s, around the world. We happened to cross some artificial man-made boundaries called borders, but how could transporting something from A to B possibly be illegal? It never made sense to me and still does not.
The beauty of the book you hold in your hands is that it offers a unique and perfect insight into the money-laundering world of thirty-odd years ago. That was a time when, at one point, Bruce and his colleagues would be moving around huge amounts of currency by using golf bags with secret compartments within them. Indeed, Bruce estimates that his favorite golf bag, “Old Faithful,” would alone have transported many millions-of-dollars-worth of notes between locations such as Guam, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Switzerland, the Philippines and Australia. As with everything, it is often the simplest solutions that work best.
I first met Bruce in the early 1980s in Hong Kong, and we immediately formed a solid rapport. He was a master of his chosen trade and helped me clean up some cash that I had earned through smuggling. Reading about his two decades of laundering vividly brought back to me all the excitement, glamour and sheer fun that an international jet-setting life of crime invariably imparts.
In the first two years of his career, Bruce visited thirty countries and then escalated to going through two forty-eight-page passports a year. I travelled almost as extensively, but I tended to do so under several different identities backed by false passports. I could not build up a collection of air miles. Bruce, as far as I am aware, always travelled under his real name, and I cannot even hazard a guess at how many miles he managed to accumulate.
While Bruce fell into his vocation by accident, he took to it like a duck to water and was soon the go-to man for those who did not feel the need to tell the tax authorities about every penny they had earned, or were slightly cagey about exactly how they had earned the money. Bruce never asked many questions but, as with all these stories, governments began to ask too many questions, and snitches, that most vile sub-species of criminal, were eventually very happy to provide them with answers. I found Bruce’s heartfelt tirades against grasses to be one of the funniest and most incisive parts of this fascinating account.
Bruce also captures brilliantly the paranoia and nerve-racking horror of his chosen lifestyle. There were so many near misses that it was only sheer luck and quick thinking that kept him out of trouble for so long. For example, who would have thought that one of the main ways to avoid a pull by airport customs was to join the queue directly behind someone of Indian descent? It turns out that our so-called color-blind airport officials will generally pick on our Indian brothers, who they assume are “always smuggling something,” thus allowing the man with $600,000 wrapped around his number-five iron to pass through unimpeded.
The Cleaner introduces us to a host of incredible characters straight off the pages of a Len Deighton novel. These include Nicolas Deak—a Hungarian-born United States citizen, an ex-secret service soldier and former hero of the war in Asia. Deak established and was chairman of Deak Perera, a worldwide network of currency agents and smugglers, to service a multitude of clients, mainly the Central Intelligence Agency. Deak’s murder, theoretically by a lone, demented female, is one of several mysteries that Bruce believes ends up at the feet of the biggest money-laundering, drug-dealing operation of them all: the CIA, Deak Perera’s main client.
We also meet Father Jose, a Spanish Jesuit priest who lugged bags of money all over Tokyo making payments for Bruce’s firm, Deak and Company, and sending all of his hard-earned commission of one-half percent back to a church he founded for prostitutes in Mexico City. The eventual arrest of this kind-hearted money launderer played a major role in the 1975 Lockheed disgrace that forced the then-Japanese-Prime-Minister, Kakuei Tanaka, to resign.
Bruce’s activities were also interwoven with two of the most famous scandals ever to humiliate Australia’s authorities: the 1988 drug-dealing Cessner-Milner affair and the earlier Nugan Hand affair, which involved the Vietnamese heroin trade (Golden Triangle), corrupt bankers, and, of course, the CIA.
When the net finally catches Bruce, we get firsthand insight into the nefarious activities of that most hypocritical of organizations, the United States government. The legal wrangling that could have resulted in at least two decades in prison for Bruce went on for many years, and Bruce’s ability to survive the seemingly endless horrors that faced him is a true testament to the quality of his character and the strength that his powerful faith has imbued in him.
We are both proud of ourselves for explicitly refusing to co-operate with the institutionalized forces of injustice that wanted us to testify against any of our co-defendants. Although I got sentenced to twenty-five years, and you will read of Bruce’s several hardships in the pages ahead, it was worth it.
Bruce now hosts a weekly Christian radio show in Hong Kong that has a phenomenal number of listeners.
Read this book and learn how good men can sometimes end up doing things that many regard as not so good. Learn as well how to ensure you do not get pulled by that nasty-looking customs official who seems to be staring directly at you.
Howard Marks AKA Mr. Nice
Best-Selling Author of Mr. Nice and Señor Nice: Straight Life From Wales to South America, and Mr. Smiley: My Last Pill and Testament.