Congress seeks to expand drug-traffic sanctions

International criminals, illicit business are targets


WASHINGTON -- Congress is close to forcing a major expansion of economic sanctions against international drug traffickers and businesses that work with them.

Legislation to impose such sanctions on narcotics criminals throughout the world passed the Senate easily last month.

After initially opposing the measures on both practical and foreign policy grounds, administration officials have begun to work with legislators to fashion a bill both the House and President Clinton could support.

But while such measures have some support among businesses and government officials in Colombia -- the only country where the United States has used them -- they are being strongly opposed by the government of Mexico and a few of that country's biggest companies.

"The Mexican government has repeatedly expressed profound concern about the negative consequences that may arise from the implementation of such a proposal," Mexico's ambassador to Washington, Jesus Reyes Heroles, wrote July 27 in a confidential letter to the White House drug-policy director, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey.

The sanctions would bar drug traffickers and their associates from doing business in the United States, cut off their access to American banks and freeze any assets they might have deposited here.

American firms that continue to work with companies linked to the traffickers would be subject to civil and criminal prosecution.

Clinton first levied such penalties in 1995 against the four main leaders of Colombia's Cali drug cartel.

Since then, the Treasury Department, which administers the sanctions, has built a list of almost 500 relatives, associates and mostly Colombian companies linked to the traffickers.

More than two dozen of those companies have ended up liquidating their assets, officials said, while others have had to reorganize or change their names.

But administration officials have hesitated almost from the start of the program to extend it to drug criminals in other countries, and particularly to those in Mexico.

In part, their concerns have been practical: Before acting against the Cali cartel, U.S. officials had been able to analyze reams of the group's secret business records seized in raids by Colombian police teams backed by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the CIA.

By contrast, the most powerful Mexican drug mafias are believed to have hidden their wealth in mazes of front companies, aliases and associates that the American authorities have not yet been able to penetrate.

One CIA effort to dig into the possible drug connections of one of Mexico's most prominent business dynasties ended after an intelligence agent in Mexico was threatened while trying to search public records, officials said.

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