Ozark: How Does Marty Byrde Launder Money in the Netflix Show?

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how the drug cartel money is cleaned in Netflix crime drama Ozark, here’s how it’s done

Laura Linney and Jason Bateman on Ozark
Photo: Netflix

Warning: contains spoilers for Ozark seasons 1-3

Before we start, Den of Geek would like to make it clear that this website neither condones nor endorses the practice of international money laundering for illegal drug cartels. Our message to anybody considering it? Just say no. As Netflix’s Ozark proves, you’ll only end up dissolved in a barrel of acid or wearing a hole clean through your soul with all the running-for-your-life-mammon-worshipping-wheeler-dealing.

Now that’s been established, here’s how it’s done: 

In Ozark, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) starts off as a Chicago-based financial advisor in a small firm with a side line in laundering drug money for the Navarro drug cartel, the second largest in Mexico. When Marty’s business partner Bruce is caught skimming $8 million from the cartel’s profits, the cartel murders him and takes Marty up on his offer of paying back the cash and continuing to launder for them by relocating to Missouri tourism hot spot The Ozarks, away from the watchful eye of US law enforcement agencies. 

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Cash-based businesses

You ordered 25 air conditioners. Now, the thing is we only installed four […] There’s an estimate here for the swim dock that is ten times higher than any sane human would pay unless said human was making the swim dock out of Carrera fucking marble. There is enough carpeting here for the goddamn mall of America” – Rachel, ‘The Book of Ruth’, Ozark season one.

The Byrde family moves to Missouri with $8 million of drug money to launder, and a deadline. Marty quickly buys two cash businesses with high operating costs in need of renovation – strip club Lickety Splits and the Blue Cat Lodge lakeside inn. He uses them to launder money (pay illegally gained cash into the banking system and process it to make its source undetectable so it can then be withdrawn as untraceable ‘legal’ currency) in two ways: first, by physically mixing the cartel dollars in with the takings paid into the bank, artificially inflating the businesses’ revenues, and second, by exaggerating the businesses’ outgoings and paying vastly inflated sums to cartel-controlled suppliers for imaginary products and services. 

It works like this: The cartel earns millions of US dollars through the sale of heroin and delivers it in cash to Marty. He gradually combines it with the cash takings of his businesses, as well as paying it out to cartel-controlled companies for the supply of goods, most of which will never be received. Renovating the Blue Fish Lodge, for example, Marty might order 100 times the square footage of carpet required but only receive a fraction, enabling him to grossly overpay a cartel-owned business which will be able to bank the cash and legitimise it through the system. He might pay for a ton of pole grease from a cartel-controlled company for Lickety Splits, or of formaldehyde for the funeral parlour Wendy buys, products that the businesses will never see. 

When the Byrdes open the Missouri Belle riverboat casino – another cash-heavy business – they also hire ringers supplied with cartel cash to pose as gamblers and deliberately lose money at the tables as another way of feeding dirty money into a legitimate business alongside the legal revenue.  

Anonymous shell companies

“From Chicago to Panama, Moscow to Tel Aviv, Marty Byrde can make $100 million disappear like spit on a hot skillet.” Carmino del Rio, ‘Sugarwood’, Ozark season one.

Once the dirty money is in the banking system, its tracks need covering so that the relevant financial authorities can’t identify its source. That involves transferring it from a US dollar banking account to one or more shell companies (companies with no employees or physical headquarters that exist solely to hold funds, often with anonymous/disguised ownership) that exist in countries outside the jurisdiction of the tax authority, and then transferring it back to a standard current/checking account in another country, from which it can be withdrawn and treated as legitimate. Marty channels funds through a complex web of Panamanian and other offshore shell companies, none of which bear his or anybody’s real name. His son Jonah – a chip off the block – does exactly the same thing when he opens a bank account under the name of his false identity. 

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As Marty explains it:

“Okay, money laundering 101. Say you come across a suitcase with 5 million bucks in it, what would you buy? A yacht? A mansion? A sports car? Sorry, the IRS won’t let you buy anything of value with it. So you’d better get that money into the banking system. But here’s the problem, that dirty money is too clean, looks like it just came out of a bank vault. You gotta age it up, crumple it, drag it through the dirt, run it over with your car, anything to make it look like it’s been around the block. Next, you need a cash business, something pleasant and joyful with books that are easily manipulated, no credit card receipts, etc. You mix the five million with the cash from the joyful business, that mixture goes from an American bank to a bank from any country that doesn’t have to listen to the IRS. It then goes into a standard checking account and voila, all you need is access to one of over 3 million terminals because your work is done. Your money is clean. It’s as legitimate as anybody else’s.”

So there you have it. But remember – it’s a bad idea, kids. Money laundering is not big and it’s not clever. Okay, well, maybe it’s a teeny bit clever…

Ozark is streaming now on Netflix.