By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009
President Obama yesterday ratcheted up efforts to curb the flow of drugs and guns across the southern border, imposing financial sanctions against three of the most violent Mexican drug cartels and threatening to prosecute Americans who do business with them.
On the eve of his summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderón today, Obama added the cartels to the list of banned foreign "drug kingpins," a move that empowers the federal government to seize their assets, estimated to be in the billions of dollars. It also allows the government to seek criminal penalties against U.S. firms or individuals who provide weapons, launder money or transport drugs or cash for the organizations.
By targeting the cartels -- Sinaloa, Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana -- the administration expanded its support for Calderón's crackdown on the narco-traffickers, an effort that has provoked a violent backlash and led to thousands of deaths in the past two years.
The Obama administration accelerated what is normally a year-long effort to add names to the banned list. The government did not identify assets held by the three cartels, but authorities have estimated that $19 billion to $39 billion in drug proceeds flows south each year from the United States.
The financial sanctions provide an additional tool against the organizations, whose drug and gun trafficking has proved exceedingly difficult to curtail. Mexico, for example, has seized more than 35,000 firearms from narco-traffickers since December 2006, and both governments say 90 percent of the weapons originated in the United States.
The effort to curb the southbound flow of what some have called an "iron river of guns" has faced heavy obstacles, including limited resources, relatively open access to firearms and political opposition to tighter gun regulation.
Even if the supply of U.S. guns were cut off, as long as the flow of money to the cartels continues, they could rearm by buying from other countries, including those in Eastern Europe or Central America, where surplus weapons from conflicts in the 1980s remain, analysts said.
"It's convenient for the cartels to be able to shop in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico scholar at the College of William and Mary and author of the monograph "Mexico's Struggle With 'Drugs and Thugs.' " But stopping the U.S. trade, he said, would merely place "a thorn in the side of the cartels, rather than an AK-47 in the heart."
Since 2000, 78 drug kingpin groups and individuals have been blacklisted by the U.S. government, along with nearly 500 others who have supported them. The law has been used most extensively against Colombian drug traffickers, particularly the Cali cartel.
A Treasury Department official said its office of foreign assets control is working with other agencies to identify cartel assets, but the official described a much broader net of potential liability. Anyone who knowingly deals with a cartel representative or provides goods, services or other support can face penalties, the official said, including money launderers, front companies and other facilitators. That could include banks and other financial institutions, gun dealers, money-transfer companies and transportation firms.
"If you are a Mexican company buying or receiving weapons for a cartel, you can be designated," the official said. "If you are the U.S. person selling or transporting those weapons to the cartel or any [other] designated targets, you can be fined civilly and criminally prosecuted, or both."
Julie L. Myers, a former Justice Department official who led Immigration and Customs Enforcement until last fall, said kingpin designations have been powerful tools against Colombian drug cartels, in some cases persuading defendants to agree to plea deals to protect family assets.
However, Myers said, the tactic works only if specific assets owned by the cartels, such as property, are pinpointed.
"If there's no assets [identified], it's an important symbolic gesture, but it's kind of an empty threat," she said.
Dennis Lormel, former chief of the FBI's financial crimes and terrorist financing sections, and now an executive with the consulting firm Ipsa International, said the move creates a significant deterrent for U.S. companies, which will "really have to look over their shoulders" if they do business with a cartel.
In the administration's ongoing display of attention to border issues, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and deputy national security adviser John O. Brennan traveled yesterday to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Obama has committed to speeding up a three-year, $1.4 billion countertrafficking aid program for Mexico; announced plans last month to send 450 more federal agents, equipment and other resources to the border; and last week asked for $350 million as part of a supplemental war-funding bill to support border efforts.
Under U.S. prodding, Mexico is submitting more seized guns for tracing to determine where they were purchased. Also, the United States and Mexico have agreed to share a database of ballistics information that will help track weapons.
But Calderón has pressed for more action, specifically citing weaknesses in U.S. gun laws and enforcement.
His government sees a "direct correlation" between a surge in the seizures of U.S. guns in Mexico and the 2004 expiration of a U.S. ban on assault weapons, said Arturo Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador to the United States.
Sarukhan has urged the U.S. government to enforce laws against selling guns to individuals who intend to export them to Mexico, particularly military-style assault rifles and high-caliber weapons that have fueled drug-related violence.
He has also proposed that the Obama administration reinstitute a ban on importing assault weapons that was lifted by President George W. Bush in 2001, tighten restrictions on .50-caliber rifles and give "a more prominent role along the border" to law enforcement agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Customs and Border Protection.
"Most of the assault weapons are coming from the United States," Sarukhan told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "The key issue right now is, how can the United States help to shut down those guns and shut down that bulk cash that is providing the drug syndicates in Mexico with the wherewithal to corrupt, to bribe, to kill?"
Staff writer Karl Vick contributed to this report.