The Unites States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced on Tuesday, August 7, 2012, that the Stann-Creek based, Belizean business magnate, John Zabaneh, his nephew Dion Zabaneh, of Belize City, and Corozal-based businessman Daniel G. Moreno, as well as five businesses associated with the elder Zabaneh and Moreno, have been named under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act as persons and companies that can no longer do business with US individuals and companies.
The measure also calls for all their assets under US jurisdiction to be frozen, as the persons listed have been pinpointed by the US as operatives of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel in Belize.
Since June 2000, OFAC has designated more than 1,100 businesses and individuals linked to 97 drug kingpins, the office said. John Zabaneh is #1159 on the list.
“Today’s action, pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act), prohibits U.S. persons from conducting financial or commercial transactions with these individuals and companies, and also freezes any assets they may have under U.S. jurisdiction,” said the statement from US Treasury.
According to Zabaneh, the news took him by surprise. He said that he received a call from 7 News Director, Jules Vasquez, right after breakfast Tuesday, asking about the newly announced sanctions.
Zabaneh, a major player in the banana industry exporting primarily to the EU market, told us that he keeps a very small account in the US, which currently has about US$30,000, and he has it there “for doing purchases and things like that.” He contends that he makes his money legitimately. He told us that the Financial Intelligence Unit in Belize is presently checking into his Belize accounts, and he has absolutely no problem with that.
“If I am such that they are trying to claim, there should be some serious millions somewhere,” John Zabaneh told our newspaper.
According to OFAC Director Adam J. Szubin, “John Zabaneh’s drug trafficking activities and his organization’s ties to Colombian sources of supply and Mexican buyers make him a critical figure in the narcotics trade. By designating Zabaneh, OFAC is disrupting those activities and continuing its efforts, alongside those of our law enforcement partners, to expose operatives of Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, including their businesses.”
“I am not a representative; I am not a facilitator of any of these cartels that they claim. I have never been a facilitator and never will be. I want them to put their mind at rest. That is not so,” Zabaneh told Amandala in response.
“I definitely have to respond. My lawyers will advise me what to do or what options I have,” he added. “I am not about to start any war with the US. You won’t get anywhere with that. I don’t even want to be rude to them,” he said.
Zabaneh said that in the 1980s, he was convicted on drug-related charges in the US. “This is why they can’t lay off me,” he added.
The photo appearing on the US Treasury Department’s organizational chart featuring him along with his nephew and Moreno appears to be his recent driver’s license photo, Zabaneh said.
The US Treasury statement issued Tuesday, along with an organizational chart, alleged that John and Dion Zabaneh, and Daniel Moreno “are key associates of Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman Loera, and other members of the Sinaloa Cartel.”
It added that, “OFAC is designating John Zabaneh for the prominent role that he and his organization play in narcotics trafficking in Central America, particularly Belize, as well as their role in the drug trafficking operations of Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel.”
The Sinaloa Cartel, named after the Sinaloa province in Mexico, is deemed one of the most powerful narco-trafficking organizations in this hemisphere. Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, a.k.a. El Azul, a former Mexican Federal Judicial Police (PJF) officer, is named as the head of the organization. Just last month, the US took similar actions against Juan Moreno, his two wives, their alleged associates and several of their businesses, including a shopping mall and several gas stations.
According to an April 15, 2009, White House statement, the Kingpin Act became law on December 3, 1999. That same statement named the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, and La Familia Michoacana for sanctions. The persons and entities named are identified by the President but must also be approved for sanctions at the level of the US Congress.
The 2009 statement noted that the intent is “to deny significant foreign narcotics traffickers, their related businesses, and their operatives access to the U.S. financial system and to prohibit all trade and transactions between the traffickers and U.S. companies and individuals.”
In the latest listing, identifying Moreno and the Zabanehs (John and Dion), the sanction also named Moreno’s business, D’s Supermarket Limited on College Road, Corozal; and John Zabaneh’s enterprises – Mayan King Limited, Mid-South Investments Limited, Crown Paradise Enterprises Limited and Belize Chemicals Limited.
The last time Dion Zabaneh’s name was in the news was in 2007, when it was alleged that three years prior, in 2004, he had received $6.2 million from the then Chief Finance Officer of Belize Telecommunications Limited (now Belize Telemedia Limited) to convert to US dollars. BTL, which had been using the parallel market to obtain US dollars, had revealed that it had never received the US dollar equivalent.
Zabaneh said that he has not seen Dion in as many as 6 years. As for Moreno, he said: “I do not know him and I am repeating it as many times. I don’t know this man. This is a fact.... I don’t even know this guy. I don’t know the supermarket.” (Amandala called Moreno for comment but could not reach him.)
“I don’t know who is giving those kinds of information [to the US] but it is wrong. It is totally erroneous...” Zabaneh continued. “What do you call intelligence now?”
The US Treasury statement issued Tuesday contends that John Zabaneh and his organization have been involved in narco-trafficking since the 1980s.
Zabaneh said that the US has had him under heavy DEA surveillance since his 1985 marijuana conviction in Texas, for which he had received a sentence of 35 years after an indictment on 7 counts, which included allegations that in 1981, he tried to export 1,160 pounds of marijuana into the US via aircraft. He was granted a retrial on appeal, but the case was later aborted and he was sent back to Belize, Zabaneh said, claiming that the evidence against him was weak.
He told us that a DEA informant had previously visited him in Dangriga with a suitcase full of money trying to cut a purported drug deal, and he contacted police in Belmopan, who advised him to tie the man up and take him in to Belmopan police. According to Zabaneh, the same man, under the name “Carlos”, who was handed over to the Commissioner of Police here, appeared at the US trial and accused him of planting rows of marijuana between each row of banana trees on his farm.
Zabaneh said that officials of the banana association here were subpoenaed to testify that the claim made by “Carlos” was false.
Zabaneh told us that ever since his return to Belize around 1989/1990, he has been “tormented by agents and probably legitimate operators who all come under the same pretext, and all go back empty-handed.”
He said that American agents are sent to camp at his farms and he has been contending with that ever since his return to Belize.
The businessman told us that whereas he does not know of any extradition request made to hand him over to US authorities, he is afraid to travel abroad now and would be stupid to try and leave the country with the “kingpin” designation in effect.
In 1985, the US nabbed John Zabaneh in Guatemala and had him taken to Texas for trial on the drug trafficking charges.
“I am trapped here... They have grounded me here in Belize,” said Zabaneh. “I wouldn’t want to travel right now with this thing all over the world. I’d be stupid to travel.”
According to the US Treasury statement, “The OFAC Designation of the Zabaneh organization is necessary to dismantle and further disrupt the operations of the Sinaloa Cartel in other parts of the world.”
It said that Guzman Loera and the Sinaloa Cartel were identified by the President as significant foreign narcotics traffickers pursuant to the Kingpin Act in 2001 and 2009, respectively.
Under the US law, US persons and companies who proceed with doing business with John Zabaneh, Dion Zabaneh and Daniel Moreno, and their designated companies, face civil penalties of up to $1.075 million per violation or much more severe criminal penalties.
“Criminal penalties for corporate officers may include up to 30 years in prison and fines up to $5 million. Criminal fines for corporations may reach $10 million. Other individuals could face up to 10 years in prison and fines pursuant to Title 18 of the United States Code for criminal violations of the Kingpin Act,” it added.
According to Zabaneh, who anticipates some financial fallout due to the listing, he makes his living primarily from farming bananas and citrus.
In a press release issued Wednesday, he said that his struggling farms employ 750 workers, pay over $2.5 million in taxes and duties, and generate over US$15 million in foreign exchange earnings a year.
John Zabaneh told us that he will reply to the US designation via his attorney, Eamon Courtenay, SC, who recently represented him in the courts in the case of Mayan King versus six former banana workers. Courtenay is currently out of the country, but Zabaneh said that he plans to proceed with challenging the US sanction as soon as his attorney returns.
He also said that they would be seeking an audience with the US Embassy to discuss the matter.