This Week in Data: Sanctions Marginalia


Enigma found an abundance of unconventional information hidden in the data that powers our Sanctions Tracker, a new Enigma Labs project that records changes to the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) sanctions lists. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, by way of OFAC, imposes sanctions with the broad aim to achieve national security. Sanctions can be imposed on entire industries or, in the case of the Specially Designated Persons (SDN) list, targeted individuals, organizations, non-state actors, and even boats. The SDN list encompasses a variety of surprising activity, from terrorist groups led by the world’s most dangerous female and trending criminal hashtags to individuals receiving treatment from a British doctor who fixes Japanese gang honor mutilations. Let’s take a further look.

The “Empress of Terror”

OFAC removed Fusako Shigenobu from the SDN list in April 2001 because of her announcement to disband the Japanese Red Army, a militant organization she co-founded. Shigenobu claimed the ultimate aim of the group was to catalyze a global socialist revolution. The Japanese Red Army is most known for its role in the 1972 Lod Airport massacre that killed 26 people including Professor Aharon Katzir, a renowned biophysist and candidate for the 1973 Israeli presidency, and injured 80 others. Shigenobu became known as the ‘Empress of Terror.’ During the organization's peak, she claimed the title of world’s most dangerous female terrorist. Upon her return to Japan in 2000, Shigenobu was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

An incriminating Instagram

OFAC sanctioned Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa on January 8th, 2014 because of his senior role in the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world. Also known as “El Chino Antrax”, the infamous Mexican drug lord boasted his ostentatious lifestyle on multiple social media platforms including Instagram and Twitter. He was careful to blur his face in pictures but unintentionally revealed himself through his characteristic (and often pictured) diamond skull ring. Ultimately, U.S. officials identified him by his accessory while he was traveling to the Netherlands. He has since been imprisoned.

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Images from Gamboa's Instagram account

A terrorist organization around since the 17th century

The Japanese Yakuza Criminal Network is the oldest and wealthiest criminal organization in the world. OFAC has sanctioned those associated with the group for decades. However, in December 2013, OFAC sanctioned four of the most senior members of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest and most prominent Yakuza Criminal Network syndicate that accounts for almost 50% of Yakuza membership. Yamaguchi-gumi is so popular that it boasts its own website, complete with a theme song. The organization is integrated into Japan’s social fabric to such an extent that during the 1995 Kobe earthquake, members distributed food and supplies to victims. Members are marked by gang rituals including full body tattoos and chopped fingers. Yubitsume, literally translated as “finger shortening”, is so commonplace that British Professor Alan Roberts, affectionately known as “Mr. Fingers”, exports false hands to reformed gangsters removed from the SDN list in Japan.

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Members of Yamaguchi-gumi attend a memorial service for their leader, Masahisa Takenaka, in Kobe, Honshu, Dec. 15, 1988

The manner in which entities are represented in raw OFAC data does little justice to their real-world impact. To provide greater context, our Sanctions Tracker includes compelling data visualizations that investigate sanctions by volume, global reach, and presidential administration as well as trends tied to major geopolitical events.

Curious about other individuals or groups on the sanctions list? Explore the full range on our Sanctions Tracker—or try plucking a name from our list to do your own digging. What you uncover might surprise you.