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 August 7 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 blacklisted 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 in Central America since the 1980s, the press release states.
InSight Crime Analysis
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 also warned earlier this year that Belize’s security situation was rapidly deteriorating. This is partly due to the usual suspects: geography (Belize is situated in Central America’s Northern Triangle and shares a 266 kilometer 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 US State Department observed. All of these factors have helped create a convenient locale for transnational crime to set up shop inside the country.
While there have been previous reports that Mexican Zetas gang 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 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 precursor chemical trafficker in the country reportedly works for the Zetas, as InSight Crime has previously reported.
A version of this article was previously published on the Pan-American Post.