Wednesday, August 8, 2012

US Treasury Blacklists ‘Sinaloa Cartel Contact’ in Belize

Tuesday, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it was imposing new sanctions against a trio of alleged drug traffickers based in Belize, described as key associates for Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo.”

According to the official press release, the Sinaloa Cartel’s key contact in Belize is John Zabaneh, described as the intermediary between Colombian suppliers and Mexican buyers. The OFAC also blacklists Zabaneh’s nephew and another associate, Daniel Moreno.

The US government will freeze the assets of five companies linked to Zabaneh, including a banana farm, a building contractor, a resort management business, a pharmaceuticals business, and a supermarket.

Zabaneh was involved in the drug trade since the 1980s, the press release states.

The OFAC designation calls attention to Belize’s increased status as a country affected by organized crime and drug trafficking. Last year, the White House expanded its list of major illicit drug transit countries to include Belize for the first time, alongside El Salvador. The US State Department Narcotics report also warned earlier this year that Belize’s security situation was rapidly deteriorating. This is partly due to the usual suspects: geography (Belize is conveniently situated in Central America’s Northern Triangle and shares 266 kilometers of border with Guatemala), weak state institutions and rule of law. Belize had “no successful prosecutions related to large seizures of illicit drugs” in 2011, the report observed. All of these factors have helped create a convenient locale for transnational crime to set up shop.

While there have been previous reports that Mexican group the Zetas have some presence in Belize’s ports and frontier region, the Treasury Department blacklist is one of the clearest indications yet that the Sinaloa Cartel do have established contacts here. And as the LA Times points out, it is also suggestive that the US is ready and willing to target the Sinaloa Cartel’s key allies outside of Mexico, as part of the ongoing effort to up the pressure against Guzman’s organization.

The Sinaloa Cartel is not the only transnational criminal group to maintain contacts in Belize. Guatemalan drug trafficker Otoniel Turcios was arrested in the country in 2010. An alleged meth chemical trafficker in the country reportedly works for the Zetas, as InSight Crime has previously reported.

News Briefs
  • Adam Isacson at Just the Facts examines Colombia’s security challenges at the halfway point of President Juan Manuel Santos’ presidency. While Santos and his supporters argue that the media has presented things as worse than they really are, critics on the left argue that Santos is repeating the fundamentally flawed strategy adopted by his predecessor President Uribe, while critics on the right maintain that the military is “paralyzed by fear of running afoul of civilian prosecutors,” and thus are reluctant to go on the offensive. Isacson observes that all three of these views of security have some truth to them, and part of Santos’ problem is coaxing out concrete results from his ambitious legislation. And the ongoing criticisms of former President Alvaro Uribe, who maintains an approval rating of over 60 percent compared to Santos’ ratings in the high 40s, may also have significantly contributed to the perception that Santos has overseen a decline in security.
  • The lawyer for El Salvadoran war crime suspect, former general Inocente Montano, is due in US federal court Thursday, reports Fox News Latino. Montano has been accused of conspiring to kill six Jesuit priests in 1989, a killing that drew widespread attention from the international community during El Salvador’s civil war. In February, Montano was convicted by a Massachusetts court of perjury and making false immigration statements: when applying for protected status in the US, he claimed that he had never worked for the military. Central American Politics notes that Montano could either be deported back to El Salvador, found guilty and sentenced in the US, or extradited to Spain where he is wanted for participation in the murder of the priests. 
  • El Salvadoran smuggler Chepe Luna was arrested in Honduras’ capital on Tuesday, and may soon face extradition to the US where he is wanted on drug trafficking charges. Chepe was a leader of smugglers’ group the Perrones in El Salvador, responsible for moving drugs, human cargo, and other contraband through the country.  As El Faro reports, Luna’s capture follows four unsuccessful police operations aimed at arresting him, all of which failed due to intelligence leaks. 
  • The Miami Herald reports from Cauca, Colombia, on the volunteers who make up the Indigenous Guard that ejected the military from a mountaintop base last month. The article notes that previous to the controversial stand-off in Cuaca, the Guard was originally formed as a type of neighborhood watch organization, and has been awarded Colombia’s National Peace Prize for preaching non-violence and civil resistance. The Guard has counted other security successes, the Herald reports, such as rescuing hostages kidnapped by guerrilla group the FARC. 
  • Fox News Latino on a mechanical border agent being tested in Arizona. The computer program is meant to be used to supervise expedited border crossings -- commuters who have already passed a rigorous series of background checks. But the technology is raising questions over whether it could present a security threat, if travelers figure out how to get around it.
  • The LA Times examines the controversy surrounding the construction of a memorial to the victims of Mexico’s drug war. While memorials usually generate intense debate, the Times notes that the victims’ memorial is a particularly difficult issue, as Mexico “remains gripped by the violence that this monument will mark.” While the idea for the memorial originated from activists’ groups protesting the violence, many are now critical of the idea. This incudes poet Javier Sicilia, who called the proposed memorial a “barbarity,” arguing that the government should work towards reconciliation by identifying the dead, and supporting laws that would provide assistance to victims’ families. The government has also angered activist groups by proposing to build the memorial alongside a military field, the newspaper reports. 
  • The New York Times with a feature on Brazil’s growing ties to Africa, particularly Portuguese-speaking nations like Angola. Brazil’s increasing willingness (and ability) to export foreign aid to Africa is representative of how much Brazil’s economy has developed from decades ago, when the country was still dependent on receiving foreign aid itself. Asides from supporting educational, health, and security projects, Brazil also has an interest in increasing opportunities for Brazilian companies in select parts of Africa. 
  • The Christian Science Monitor notes that Tuesday was the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Esquipulas peace accords in Central America, which pledged to downsize militaries across the region and support the transition into democracy. At the time, the pledge was considered an important shift away from Cold War-era policies at the time. Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter: “It revealed a degree of initiative and independence that the region hadn't seen before, almost a defiance of the Reagan policy.” But as the Monitor notes, 25 years later Central America remains one of the most conflicted and violent regions in the world. 
  • The AFP with an update on Brazil’s “biggest ever bribery trial,” involving 38 former top government officials for President Lula da Silva’s administration. The Attorney General has called the case "the most daring and outrageous corruption scheme and embezzlement of public funds ever seen in Brazil." So far several defense attorneys have focused on arguing that their clients (which include Lula’s former chief of staff) should be absolved, citing a lack of specific evidence against them. The trial, expected to last one month, could see those found guilty sentenced to up to 45 years in prison. 
  • The AP on Cuba’s struggles to support a rapidly ageing population, where thanks to better health care and increased life expectancy, some 17 percent of the island’s 11 million people are reportedly over 60 years old. But the ageing population has accompanied a shrinking labor force and a lowered fertility rate, prompting Cuba sociologist Alberta Duran to call the phenomenon “Cuba’s biggest demographic problem since the 1990s.” 

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