"Few people have gone to prison or have had their businesses shut down as a result of the American sanctioning. Instead, analysts said, it functions more as a scarlet letter that can complicate finances by prohibiting American banks, companies and citizens from doing business with them, making cross-border banking difficult and chasing away some legitimate investors.

"The U.S. operations and designations are pretty unilateral," said Eric L. Olson, a scholar at the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. But Mexican officials "don't have to go along" with the American enforcement actions, he noted.

Even when nations work together, "the ability to shut down the finances of a global operation is pretty difficult," Mr.Olson said. "It's one thing to go after an individual business like a shoe repair shop in Querétano, but to dismantle the overall organization like the Sinaloa operation is global."

Guadalajara and Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa State, which both lie in agricultural hubs along drug smuggling routes, are places where Mr.Guzmán is believed to have hidden his cash."

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