Amelia Giraldo Arango was about to claim her welfare subsidy when the trouble started.
Giraldo, whose saga was reported by Semana magazine, had gone to a Banco Agrario branch in Bello, Antioquia, in August 2009 to withdraw the monthly payment as she normally did. But this time, the teller referred the 40-year-old mother of two to the branch manager. What the manager would tell Giraldo would change her life: She had unknowingly been thrust into a Kafkaesque nightmare of mistaken identity at the heart of money laundering and U.S. economic sanctions, ultimately prompting the Constitutional Court to act.
The bank manager told Giraldo that her account had been frozen because her name and national identification number were on the “Clinton List,” adding that she could be “thrown in jail at any time.”
“The Clinton List? What’s that?” Giraldo asked.
The so-called Clinton List is part of the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) registry of people, business, and vessels that the U.S. Treasury suspects may have ties to drug traffickers, terrorists, or countries beset by any of the 57 active sanctions programs in the United States. Being on the list is a financial death sentence of sorts. SDNs have their U.S. financial assets frozen, and U.S. citizens and companies are prohibited from doing business with them. Violators can face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for individuals or $500,000 for companies.
Colombian banks, which fear being barred from the U.S. financial system, have often frozen or closed the accounts of people or businesses on the list.
“Financial institutions, credit bureaus, charities, car dealerships, health insurers, landlords, and employers are now checking names against the list before they open an account, close a sale, rent an apartment or offer a job,” according to a report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, a Washington-based civil rights group.
But what happened to Giraldo highlights one of the challenges U.S. and Colombian authorities face when it comes to combatting the ill-gotten gains of drug traffickers. On one hand, law enforcement agencies want to dismantle the financial empires of drug kingpins and argue that these sanctions have impacted cartel leaders’ ability to “conduct business in both the national and international marketplaces.” On the other, civil rights activists and lawyers say that lists of this nature, like no-fly lists, can result in serious problems of mistaken identity. And once you’re on the SDN list, it’s dif- ficult to get off or find out why you were added to begin with.
“There really is no explanation or standard for why someone gets on the list,” said Peter L. Fitzgerald, a law professor at Stetson University in Florida, who has studied the list.
In Giraldo’s case, U.S. and Colombian authorities had confused “Rosa Amelia Giraldo Arango” with “Rosa Amelia Giraldo Sarria,” who allegedly had ties to Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, the leaders of the Cali Cartel. And even though the second last names did not match, Giraldo Arango’s cédula number was erroneously added to the list. It is unclear who committed the mistake or how the error was made.
The consequences were dire for Giraldo Arango. She had struggled to open a small convenient store in a humble hill- side neighborhood in Bello after being displaced by violence in Angostura, Antioquia, where illegal armed groups displaced 1,672 of the town’s 11,000 residents between 2002 and 2013, according to a report by Colombia’s Department of National Planning.
The mother of two depended on that welfare subsidy to stock her store’s shelves and send her two daughters to school. Without it, she barely kept her store afloat, making a meager $2,000 to $5,000 pesos in profit per day.
“If I would have been able to get a loan, with that I would have been able to fill the store and make the payments and pay the interest, but I couldn’t go back to the banks,” Giraldo told Semana.
For four years, Giraldo Arango tried to get off the list. She went to any office she could, but the response was always the same: Colombia does not have the legal authority or jurisdiction to remove someone from the list. And the U.S. Treasury is not legally required to remove people from the list. However, hundreds of entries have been removed since the list’s inception.
The U.S. Treasury will consider removing an entry if contacted by the person on the list. But it can take years to resolve.
Finally, in 2014—five years after being included on the list—Colombia reinstated Giraldo’s welfare payments after the Constitutional Court ruled that her “fundamental rights” were violated due to “an identification error.” Giraldo Sarria, for her part, was eventually removed from the list.
The Clinton List takes its nickname from a highly publicized crackdown on the financial holdings of Colombian drug traffickers—particularly the Cali Cartel—by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1995.
Since then, the list has received scant public attention in the U.S. but has regularly been front-page news in Colombia as several prominent Colombian businesses were sanctioned, including drug store chain La Rebaja and the America de Cali football club, which was blocked from playing in the U.S. from 1999 until 2013. La Rebaja was removed from the list in 2014.
The SDN list currently includes 9,497 individuals, businesses, and vessels based in 155 countries. One in five entries are Colombia-based—more than any other country. Cali, Bogotá, and Medellín are the most frequent cities on the list. Bogotá, for its part, has 337 entries.