U.S. authorities recently arrested the son of the Sinaloa drug cartel’s chief strategist on various charges, including conspiracy to import drugs. The discovery of this narcotics smuggling plot highlights the need to evolve U.S. approaches to counternarcotic efforts, Mexican criminal justice system reforms, and financial targeting in the fight against organized crime.
The Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, possibly exerts the widest trafficking influence in the Western Hemisphere. It actively traffics drugs, people, and other illicit goods throughout the Americas. The cartel even reaches deep through the permeable U.S. border, supplying 80 percent of the rampant drug problem in Chicago and throughout America. Chicago labeled “El Chapo” as Public Enemy No. 1, a title created specifically for the gangster Al Capone.
South of the Rio Grande, Mexican government officials’ complicity with organized crime has also become an increasing problem. Research suggests that 40 percent of local Mexican officials are subject to the influence of criminal organizations. Cartel violence, endemic corruption, and the intertwining of business and government authorities with illicit conduct have already caused serious problems for the U.S.–Mexico security partnership.
But perhaps a more subtle threat to both U.S. and Mexican security stems from the financial and business enterprises of organized crime. Beyond the brutalities of the Zetas, organized crime in Mexico has become directly tied to legitimate enterprises and therefore to the national and global economy. The Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act of 1999 allows the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to specifically target and isolate Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficking Kingpins (SDNTKs) who use pseudo-legitimate enterprises to further unlawful practices.
OFAC seeks to restrict organized criminal groups’ money supply by targeting laundering fronts. In an effort to disengage legitimate from illicit, OFAC focuses on many different SDNTK “cleaning” businesses, including gas stations, car washes, and shopping centers. Even “El Chapo’s” main blood-soaked rival, the Beltran Leyva Organization, controls a private security firm targeted by OFAC. Indeed, cartel operations blur the line between private enterprise and illegal practices.
Expanding the U.S.’s partnership with Mexico on security and economic issues is vital for a secure future. The U.S. needs to continue refining OFAC’s toolkit to delegitimize the money-laundering schemes of organized crime. Furthermore, the U.S. should, with the Mexican government, promote a broad 21st-century anti-crime strategy. Given the whirlwind of developments, the U.S. should continue encouraging Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to reform the country’s criminal justice system and financial activities to promote a stronger bilateral relationship that reduces the hemispheric threat of organized crime.
Brett Ramsay and Mary Moody are currently members of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.