Yellen announces new sanctions in Mexico aimed at curbing fentanyl flows

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By David Lawder

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Biden administration announced new sanctions and indictments against Mexican nationals on Wednesday as it seeks to deepen cooperation with the Mexican government to curb flows of the opioid fentanyl to the United States.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, on her first trip to Mexico since taking office in 2021, announced the new sanctions against 15 individuals and two Mexican companies linked to the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.

They are aimed at disrupting the Beltran Leyva Organization, which the Treasury describes as "one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world," and a major supplier of cocaine and now fentanyl, to the U.S.

The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday said that sixty Mexican and foreign nationals had been charged with international drug trafficking, including 12 of the individuals that were sanctioned and are linked to the Beltran Leyva cartel.

The Treasury has previously sanctioned members of the cartel, but the latest designations were issued under a 2021 executive order that broadens the scope of drug-related activities to include transactions that have "materially contributed to, or pose a significant risk of materially contributing to" illicit drugs proliferation.

"We have authorities now that I think make it easier for us to go after middlemen who are not actually trading fentanyl itself but goods like pill presses and pharmaceuticals that aren’t export controlled," Yellen told reporters.

"But when used as part of a cartel to facilitate the drug trade, we can now come down and put sanctions on those entities," she added.

During her visit to Mexico, Yellen is aiming to sharpen cooperation with the government and businesses to find and cut off the flow of financing to drug cartels and their front companies.

"Of course the United States cannot do this alone," she said in remarks on the Treasury's anti-fentanyl efforts.

Yellen toured a Mexican government crime lab that is pioneering the training of dogs to detect fentanyl precursor chemicals. She will meet with Mexico's finance minister and central bank chief to discuss ways to improve information sharing.

On Thursday, she is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

She said that opioid overdoses, including fentanyl, are killing more than 1,500 people in America per week, making fentanyl the biggest killer of people aged 18-49 in the United States.

The trip follows Treasury's announcement on Monday of a counter-fentanyl "strike force" that will bring together the department's resources, including the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation unit, to disrupt illicit drug trafficking, including through cryptocurrencies.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month agreed to deepen cooperation to stem the flow of fentanyl precursor chemicals from China, which are often mixed by Mexican drug gangs before distribution in the U.S.

Yellen said the drive for Mexico's cooperation in enforcing sanctions is an important part of making good on the Biden-Xi anti-fentanyl pledge.

The Treasury has been imposing sanctions - which aim to cut illicit actors off the U.S. dollar-based financial system - for years, disrupting individual cartels, but the actions have failed to slow the overall flow of illicit drugs to the United States.


Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said the U.S.-Mexico drugs trade and its associated security concerns have also become an impediment to business investment in Mexico.

Inhibiting the production and distribution of fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and other drugs is important, "but part of it needs to be to dampen the U.S. demand for the drugs. And we don't seem to be doing a good job of that."

Yellen told business executives that Mexico was well positioned to participate in the "friend-shoring" diversifications of U.S. supply chains, but it would require the government to "create a strong investment and operating environment for the private sector."

Companies looking to invest in Mexico "need to be able to count on adequate infrastructure and other public services," along with trained workforces and rule of law, she said.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Boyle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and Shri Navaratnam)