WASHINGTON – President Obama on Wednesday ratcheted up efforts to curb the flow of drugs and guns across the 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 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 three groups – the Sinaloa, Los Zetas, and La Familia Michoacana cartels – the administration expanded its support for Calderon’s crackdown on narcotics trafficking, which 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, each year, $19 billion to $39 billion in drug proceeds flow south from the United States.
The financial sanctions provided an additional tool against the organizations, whose drug and gun trafficking has proven exceedingly difficult to curtail.
Mexico, for example, has seized more than 35,000 firearms from narcotics traffickers since December 2006, and both governments say that 90 percent originated in the United States.
The effort to curb the southbound flow of an “iron river of guns” has faced heavy obstacles, including limited resources, relatively open access to guns and political opposition to tighter gun regulation.
Even if the supply of U.S. guns was cut off, as long as the flow of money to the cartels continues, they could re-arm themselves by buying from other regions, including eastern Europe or Central America, where surplus weapons dating to conflicts in the 1980s remain, analysts said.