Pubdate: Thu, 16 Apr 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post Staff Writer


Sanctions Imposed; U.S. Firms Warned

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 Calderon 
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 Calderon's 
crackdown on the narco-traffickers, an effort that has provoked a 
violent backlash and led to tens of 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, each year, $19 billion to $39 billion in drug 
proceeds flows south 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 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 & 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 Calderon 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?"
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