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In Ozark season 4, the plot relies on the fact that the FBI top officials want to keep the seizures happening, apparently as a source of money benefiting the FBI itself. In the story the Cartel boss Navarro has been voluntary leaking information about where/when illegal shipments are taking place, in order to get a deal with the FBI. But he discovers that the FBI officials don't want a deal, they want the cartel to maintain their illegal activities so that the FBI can get their share through the seizures.

How realistic is it for top FBI official to take bribes, apparently on behalf of the FBI itself? Can the FBI actually keep the proceeds of the seizures?

This looks like an obvious loophole: If this was possible, any major crime organization could strike a deal with the FBI to share a percentage of their benefits the same way! In this scenario, the FBI would just be a criminal organization ransoming other criminal organizations.

Incidentally, at some point Marty Birde convinces Ruth that she can keep laundering money through the casino for the cartel:

“It’s not a crime since it’s sanctioned by the FBI!”

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    @Joachim hopefully someone who's a bit familiar with how the FBI works and the rules it follows.
    – Erwan
    Jun 9 at 13:35
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    “I’m from the FBI, and I can confirm that we actually do routinely take bribes from Mexican drug lords.” This would be the greatest response ever. Jun 13 at 6:53
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    Not really familiar with the show. But a basic look at the plot line in season 4, this seems like an attempt to inject the concept of asset forfeiture abuse into the show. In the case of asset forfeiture abuse, that is definitely a real thing that happens in many rural locations in the U.S. But the abuse is typically something that happens in local law enforcement departments. On a small scale, one can get away with asset forfeiture abuse. But on a grand scale as described here with the FBI? I doubt it. Aug 17 at 16:50
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    @Erwan I just posted an answer that basically states that asset forfeiture abuse is a very real thing. But a large scale FBI asset forfeiture in the context of a drug cartel’s money laundering operation? That seems like an utterly cynical, delusional fantasy. Aug 18 at 20:56
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    @Giacomo1968 thank you, great answer!
    – Erwan
    Aug 19 at 10:19

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I believe that the scale of FBI corruption portrayed in Ozark (Season 4) is fantastical at best.

While the FBI, like most any government organization, is prone to varying levels of corruption I don’t believe the sheer scale of corruption portrayed in Ozark (Season 4) is realistically sustainable.

First, I am not saying the FBI is a 100% pure entity. It clearly isn’t as shown by the list of FBI controversies as documented on Wikipedia shows. Most any government bureaucracy has to deal with varying levels of corruption. And places like the FBI have internal methods of review that attempt to investigate and control such corruption.

I simply find it impossible to believe that an FBI operation as portrayed in Ozark (Season 4) — where the FBI effectively takes over the money laundering operation of a Mexican drug cartel — could simply happen for the core financial gain of the local FBI officials engaging in such behavior.

Asset forfeiture is a real issue.

Instead, I believe what the creators of Ozark are attempting to do is to dramatize the very real issue of asset forfeiture abuse that plagues many small, rural law enforcement departments. Wikipedia defines asset forfeiture as follows:

Asset forfeiture or asset seizure is a form of confiscation of assets by the authorities. In the United States, it is a type of criminal-justice financial obligation. It typically applies to the alleged proceeds or instruments of crime. This applies, but is not limited, to terrorist activities, drug-related crimes, and other criminal and even civil offenses. Some jurisdictions specifically use the term "confiscation" instead of forfeiture. The alleged purpose of asset forfeiture is to disrupt criminal activity by confiscating assets that potentially could have been beneficial to the individual or organization.”

Note the vagueness of the last sentence “…disrupt criminal activity by confiscating assets that potentially could have been beneficial to the individual or organization.” This effectively means that if a law enforcement official connects someone to a local law being broken they can then confiscate anything and everything they want. The abuse comes from law enforcement simply stretching that definition to suit their needs.

For examples of how this happens on a disturbingly regular basis in the U.S., just look at the list of traffic stop related civil forfeiture incidents on the “civil forfeiture in the United States” page on Wikipedia. This case from May 2010 is a nice summary of how this often happens; bold emphasis is mine:

“In May 2010 a couple was driving from New York to Florida and they were stopped by police because of a cracked windshield. During questioning, the officer decided that $32,000 cash in the van was ‘probably involved in criminal or drug-related activity,’ seized it, shared it with federal authorities under equitable sharing. The victim hired a lawyer to get back the seized money who urged settling for half of the seized amount, and after the lawyer’s fees, the victim got back only $7,000.”

Basically, if law enforcement has an excuse and you cooperate with law enforcement during what seems to be a basic traffic stop, you run the risk of having law enforcement seize your property. Most often that property is money. And the main law enforcement contention is why would someone doing something legitimate be driving around with $32,000 cash?

I don’t believe the FBI taking over a money laundering operation of a drug cartel for their own financial gain is realistic.

The amount of money flowing within a money laundering operation connected to a drug cartel is massive. Could FBI agents do something as large scale as this and successfully cover it up? Maybe. But only for a relatively short amount of time for these reasons:

  • At what point do people in the FBI outside of this operation take notice? And when they notice, what happens? Does the FBI investigate itself? Or do the Ozark FBI agents share the wealth with others in the FBI? At what point does that scheme become practically unviable and collapse on itself?
  • At what point do others in rival drug cartels notice this and speak out about it?
  • At what point do local officials unconnected to the FBI and the cartel notice this? And what would they do if they discovered this?

At the end of the day small scale corruption happens everywhere. And that is often caught and nipped in the bud. Often because sometimes small scale players decide to “go big” and then just self-sabotage their operation.

But large scale money laundering being run by the FBI for a drug cartel? That seems unrealistic.

Unless this FBI involvement is a part of a larger game or investigation where they will jump on the cartel and shut this down, this all seems like lazy, cynical and fantastical writing on the part of the Ozark show runners.

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Is it true? No one here will know for sure. Is it possible? Yes. Absolutely. The entire FBI need not know about the process, only the people in a direct chain.

It is entirely possible that with a head of a chain of command that is fully onboard with retaining shipments of cash, it is completely conceivable that everyone under that chain will do exactly what they're told.

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