MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – New Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is taking aim at the finances of the powerful Jalisco cartel in what a top anti-money laundering official said was the opening salvo in the fight to stop criminal gangs from flourishing with impunity.
Santiago Nieto, the new head of the finance ministry’s Financial Intelligence Unit, told Reuters on Thursday that he had filed a complaint against three businesses and seven people linked to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. On Wednesday, the finance ministry said Nieto’s unit had filed its first complaint with prosecutors, but did not include any details.
The move against the Jalisco cartel, a relative newcomer that has risen to become one of Mexico’s most dangerous criminal gangs, heralds a new effort to overcome Mexico’s reputation for weak prosecutions against drug gang finances.
“I am convinced the best way to prevent criminal behavior is by sending a message that these types of acts that violate trust and social norms will be punished,” Nieto said in a telephone interview.
He said the government, which took office on Saturday, wanted to send “a first message” that it was going to focus on taking legal action “and especially seek to impose penalties.”
Mexico’s drug war has raged for over a decade despite the capture of kingpins such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Although cartels have splintered, the flow of drugs north has continued unabated, while violence in Mexico hit record levels last year.
In October, the United States offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspected leader of the Jalisco organization, Nemesio Oseguera, also known as El Mencho.
Nieto said he was able to quickly file the complaints because the businesses and people targeted already appear on the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) black list of drug traffickers.
Complaints from the Financial Intelligence Unit generally include evidence that is intended to prompt prosecutors to open criminal investigations.
Leftist Lopez Obrador, who has pledged to fight corruption, has repeatedly stressed that he wants good relations with the United States, Mexico’s neighbor and main export partner.
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international organization that sets global standards for fighting illicit finance, criticized Mexico early this year for systematically failing to punish money launderers.
The FATF report pointed to a declining rate of already-low prosecutions based on data from the intelligence unit.
Nieto said that action by authorities slowed even more in 2018, the last year of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration. The number of complaints from the unit declined and only three of them led to charges this year, he said.
Nieto said the new government would focus on filing more criminal complaints, freezing more bank accounts and seizing more goods and valuables from wrongdoers.
Nieto said the new government would also make a top priority of targeting the gangs and gas stations involved in rampant fuel theft. Lopez Obrador this week said he would soon unveil a plan to tackle fuel theft, which has become one of Mexico’s most pressing economic and security dilemmas.
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