Bustling with toddlers and parents, the Happy Child Daycare Center doesn’t look like the lair of one of the most vicious drug cartels in Mexico. ‘The Arizona Republic says the Mexican government pays Happy Child $40,000 a month to care for the children of working parents. The U.S. Treasury Department says Happy Child is a front for Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, an alleged leader of the ruthless Sinaloa Cartel that moves tons of drugs to the U.S. and, along with other gangs, is fighting a bloody crime war that threatens to destabilize Mexico.
The day care is among a growing number of Mexican businesses that the U.S. has accused of being financed, owned, or otherwise related to drug trafficking. Some of the businesses have been investigated by Mexican authorities and apparently given a clean bill of health, but are struggling to get the U.S. to lift sanctions it has imposed on them. “It’s been devastating for us; we don’t have access to credit or anything else,” said María Teresa Zambada Niebla, a part owner of Happy Child. Zambada Niebla is El Mayo’s daughter but says she is estranged from her father. The U.S. Treasury Department, which maintains and enforces a blacklist of these companies, does not have to tell foreign companies why they are accused or reveal any of the evidence against them. The number of Mexican businesses on the list has nearly doubled since the Mexican government began a crackdown on the drug cartels in 2006, from 121 to 220.