U.S. looks to Belize for alleged ties to Sinaloa drug cartel
MEXICO CITY -- The U.S. government’s effort to dismantle Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa drug cartel is a war with multiple fronts. The latest is the tiny tourist jewel of Belize.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced it was freezing the assets of three Belize residents alleged to be drug traffickers and “key associates” of the Mexican drug trafficking group. The Treasury Department has also prohibited U.S. citizens from doing business with the suspects or their companies.
The focus on Belize — a polyglot, 327,000-resident wedge of the Yucatan just south of Cancun — is the latest evidence of the overwhelming influence of the south-to-north movement of drugs through Central America.
The U.S. government has estimated that up to 90% of the 700 metric tons of cocaine headed from South America to the U.S. wends its way through Central America, and every nation in the region is on the U.S. list of “major drug transit or major illicit drug producing countries.”
Belize, along with El Salvador, was added to that U.S. “blacklist” of 22 nations in September in a presidential memorandum that noted numerous recent drug and weapons seizures on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Belize border, as well as the presence of Mexican cartels including the Zeta gang, the ruthless rival to the Sinaloa cartel.
The three suspects targeted Tuesday are John Zabaneh, described by U.S. officials as a “critical figure” with ties to Colombian suppliers and Mexican buyers; his nephew Dion Zabaneh, and a “close associate” named Daniel Moreno.
The Treasury Department also designated as off-limits a number of companies either owned or controlled by Moreno or John Zabaneh, including a building contractor, a resort and marina company, a pharmaceutical firm, a supermarket company, and a banana farm called Mayan King Ltd.
The bigger target, however, is the Sinaloa cartel, and its billionaire fugitive capo, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. Treasury officials say the Belizeans are associates of Guzman and other members of the cartel, the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico and perhaps the most powerful narcotics ring in the world.
“John Zabaneh’s drug trafficking activities and his organization’s ties to Colombian sources of supply and Mexican buyers make him a critical figure in the narcotics trade,” Adam J. Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement. “By designating Zabaneh, OFAC is disrupting those activities and continuing its efforts, alongside those of our law enforcement partners, to expose operatives of Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, including their businesses.”
The Treasury Department has the ability to “designate” foreign businesspeople with suspected drug ties under the Kingpin Act, which was signed in to law by President Clinton in 1999. Since then, U.S. officials have designated more than 1,100 businesses and individuals linked to 97 drug kingpins, according to government figures.
-- Richard Fausset