Say Hello to My Little Kingpin!

Ousmane Conte, one of five newly designated kingpins (Getty Images)
Ousmane Conte, one of five newly designated kingpins (Getty Images)

Last week, President Barack Obama wrote a letter to members of Congress telling them he was designating five foreign men—one Guinean, two Afghanis, one Mexican and one Mozambican—kingpins. Under America's "Kingpin Act," these individuals are now subject to sanctions by the U.S. government. So what's a kingpin, and why is America meddling in places like Mozambique?


If you're picturing something akin to Scarface, you're not too far off the mark. Initiated by the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) under President Bill Clinton in 1999, the Kingpin Act was designed to restrict the financial resources of the world's most powerful drug traffickers and the entities over which they lord. Since Clinton released the first list of kingpins in June 2000, American presidents have identified a total of 87 kingpins, including the most recent five: Haji Agha Jan Alizai and Haji Bando of Afghanistan; Ousmane Conte of Guinea; Sergio Enrique Villarreal Barragán of Mexico; and Mohamed Bachir Suleman of Mozambique.

Because the United States can't enforce its drug laws internationally, the Kingpin Act allows the nation, through the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, to freeze any assets drug lords may have under American jurisdiction. Furthermore, the act gives the Treasury the authority of "derivative designations," meaning it can expand the application to include an accused kingpin's business associates and associated organizations. Americans are banned from any and all business dealings with kingpins, under penalty of $5 million fines for individuals, $10 million for corporations and up to 30 years in prison.

Using the Kingpin Act differs from, say, the government's recent call for the extradition of Jamaican drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke. Coke, whose resistance to being extradited to New York sparked days of firefights in Kingston's slums, is technically not a kingpin. Though his drug operation, known as the Shower Posse, spans from Jamaica to New York, he's instead been charged with comparatively minor offenses such as conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine and conspiracy to traffic in firearms. The Kingpin Act is reserved for operations far bigger than Coke's.

In the case of Mozambique's Suleman, being classified a kingpin hurts not only his drug trade, which provides everything from hashish to cocaine to heroin to the European and South African markets, it also puts the squeeze on his ostensibly legitimate operations, including a retail store and the Maputo Shopping Centre shopping mall in the country's capital city.

Other kingpins, like Barragán of Mexico, are less subtle about their operations. As the lieutenant of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, Barragán, a former cop who now carries a $2 million bounty on his head, deals solely in things like cocaine, marijuana, murder and kidnapping. At 6-foot-6 and weighing more than 250 pounds, Barragán the Great, as he's called, is one of many kingpins operating where America and Mexico meet.

Others include the Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the head of Sinaloa Cartel, and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who leads the rival Juarez Cartel. As the two biggest illicit border operators—Loera is estimated to be worth $1 billion—Sinaloa and Juarez are currently waging one of the bloodiest drug wars in history near, and sometimes over, the borders of Texas and Arizona. Last year, officials in Tucson, Ariz., said they'd counted more than 150 violent home invasions related to Mexican drug violence.


Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.