February 1, 2002
U.S. freezes assets of those believed linked to drug cartel
Several Tijuana-area businesses accused of money laundering
By DANA WILKIE and JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
and Anna Cearley
The Bush administration yesterday froze the U.S. financial assets of more than two dozen Baja California businesses and individuals accused of having ties to the Tijuana-based Arellano Félix drug cartel.
The group targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department includes a
Tijuana parking lot company owned by the family of Baja California's tourism secretary, a Tijuana-based drugstore chain and the popular Oasis Beach Resort & Convention Center in Rosarito Beach. The government accuses the companies of acting as "fronts" that laundered money.
"Today, we send a very clear message," said Treasury
Undersecretary Jimmy Gurule. "The United States is committed to routing out both the drug dealers and the financiers who make their illegal actions profitable."
Federal sources said Mexican authorities cooperated in the Treasury Department's investigation.
The order directs U.S. banks to freeze all assets and accounts that the companies and individuals have in this country, and it forbids any U.S. company or person from doing business with them.
The action, however, doesn't affect the movement of funds in
Alejandro Moreno Medina, who was named Baja California's tourism secretary in November, said he is indignant that his family's parking lot business, Valpark, is on the Treasury Department's list.
"This is an insult to the family that should be corrected," Moreno said yesterday. "Our company is run honestly and operates within the boundaries of the law."
Moreno speculated that his family is being targeted by political
rivals. Moreno isn't on the Treasury Department list, but his brother, Luis Ignacio Moreno Medino, is.
The president of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce, Jorge
Valenzuela Moreno, fears the U.S. action could unfairly besmirch the names of honest people, but he agreed in principle with the
"We don't want to have dirty businesses that damage the image of Tijuana," Valenzuela said. "If they are going to have their accounts frozen, we are the first to applaud these types of actions."
Valenzuela said he doubted Luis Ignacio Moreno or Valpark are
involved in money laundering. "I know the family and they have a good reputation."
Treasury officials described yesterday's action as a significant blow to the Arellanos' multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking operation. The group is headed by Ramón Arellano Félix, one of the FBI's most-wanted fugitives, and his brother Benjamín, who is under indictment in San Diego.
Treasury officials declined to estimate the value of the frozen assets. But several federal drug-enforcement sources said the freeze probably won't have a big impact on the cartel's financial holdings.
"That this is just the tip of the iceberg would be a fair statement," one source said. "That they were involved in some of these companies was an open secret for years, but it's good this finally happened."
Mexican President Vicente Fox has vowed to root out the corruption that has helped give rise to the Arellanos and other drug cartels. U.S. law-enforcement sources contend the Arellano cartel still spends about $50 million annually in bribes.
Ramón Arellano has been described as holding a "tight rein" on the organization, which is known for its ruthlessness. However, some American officials believe the organization is on the run and losing its grip on drug-trafficking in Baja California.
Treasury Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said at least one of the Tijuana companies had done business in Southern California. She declined to identify the firm.
"We don't want to implicate any (U.S.-based) companies that may have unwittingly done business with the targeted companies," Scolinos said.
Treasury officials targeted 10 Baja California companies it says are controlled or owned by the cartel. They said at least a dozen people operated the companies on the Arellanos' behalf.
The businesses named by the Treasury include Farmacia Vida
Suprema, a drugstore chain; Distribuidora Imperial de Baja
California, the chain's pharmaceutical distributor; and
Administradora de Inmuebles Vida, the real estate company that controls the properties of the drugstore chain and distributor.
Those three companies are believed to form the core of business operations that the Arellanos used as fronts, authorities said. They allege that the shareholders and officers in the firms either have current or former ties to the brothers.
One former shareholder was Luis Raul Toledo Carrejo, who U.S.
authorities have said is a key front man and money launderer.
Another is Jose Alejandro Gil Garcia, who authorities say is
Benjamín Arellano's accountant.
Last week, the Mexican federal attorney general's office in Tijuana opened an investigation into alleged links between the
pharmaceutical companies and money laundering.
The shareholders and officers are allegedly involved in seven other Tijuana companies targeted in yesterday's action, including Valpark, the parking lot company, and the consulting firms of ADP and Forpres. Two electronic security system companies – Accesos Electronicos and Operadora Valpark – are on the list. So is Gex Explore, a financial consulting company, and the Oasis Resort.
The assets of Miguel Aguirre Galindo, who is accused of laundering drug money through the resort, were also frozen. In the late 1980s, Aguirre Galindo was indicted by a U.S. federal court for drug trafficking, and Mexican authorities have investigated the resort several times in recent years.
The resort's administrator, Luis Fernando Quijano Pérez, was
unavailable for comment yesterday.
The Treasury Department also targeted Glenroy Vingrove Matthew, who it described as a Caribbean drug kingpin in an international drug trafficking organization with strong South American connections. Treasury Department officials could not say what ties – if any – there are between the Arellano brothers and Matthew.
Matthew and his wife, Karen, run two businesses in the West Indies that authorities said were fronts for drug operations. One is a franchise of the air courier company DHL Worldwide Express, which has headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. The other is a franchise of Freight Movers International.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who helped write the 1999
Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act that gives Treasury
officials authority to freeze assets of suspected drug traffickers, praised yesterday's action.
"With this action today the administration has sent a clear signal that the war on drugs is continuing and that the U.S. will not tolerate those who aid and abet drug traffickers," Feinstein said.